For Mining, Construction Firms, Flying Robots Keep Projects on Track

Companies in the extractive industries—including Rio Tinto—and in building construction are using aerial imaging to keep projects running smoothly and safely. We spoke with drone services provider SkyCatch about the top use cases end users are chasing.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

SkyCatch assembles its own small quadrotor drones and also uses a bespoke device called a ground station—which acts as the drone's home base and launcher—at job sites. The ground control unit is a 2-foot-square box outfitted with sensors that, once the drone returns from a flying mission, guide the device onto a landing portal on top of the box, all orchestrated via SkyCatch software. When the drone lands, a robotic arm inside the ground station removes its battery and swaps it for a fresh one. It then collects the image and coordinate data that the drone has collected and transmits it, via an Internet link, to SkyCatch servers in the cloud.

SkyCatch is working with a range of major construction companies, including Bechtel, DPR and French firm Bouygues. It also has customers in the energy business, including Chevron and First Solar.

A SkyCatch drone hovers over a mine.
Rio Tinto recently announced its "Mine of the Future" program, through which it is integrating a range of sensing and autonomous robotics technologies into its mineral-extraction processes. As part of this program, which it deployed at its West Angelas iron mine in Western Australia and is presently testing elsewhere, the mining giant is using SkyCatch drones and software for a number of applications.

Use Case: Volumetric Imaging
"With mining," Heynen explains, "measuring volume is how you do your accounting for what you take out of the ground." In open pit mining, an area is blasted, and the blasted material is shifted to remove the target ore. The mining company then measures the piles of ore, to be stockpiled, and the waste rock (or overburden).

When performed manually, these measurements are generally taken once a month, Heynen says. But using autonomous drones carrying digital cameras, mining companies can collect this information daily, thereby adding a great deal of near-real-time reporting and better accuracy to its records.

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