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

The drones fly in a specific pattern, based on GPS guidance, around the ore and waste piles, taking hundreds of images. These photographs are processed using SkyCatch and Autodesk software tools, to produce 3D images that are then analyzed to determine the volume of the material that has been photographed.

In the construction industry, volumetric measurements are used both to measure consumable inventory—think stockpiled piping or cables—so that project managers can gather accurate inventory records from day to day, and to ensure sufficient materials are on hand to complete the coming day's construction tasks. Another use of the drones is to make sure that the site's laydown yard has enough available space to accommodate an incoming shipment. Inventory, of course, is already tracked via other means, such as RFID tags or bar codes. But rather than dispatching someone into the field to collect that data, the drone and SkyCatch software would carry out the data collection autonomously.

Use Case: Safety
The massive trucks used to haul ore out of open pit mines enter and exit the pit on circular roadways built into the landscape. To ensure that these roads are constructed and graded accurately, in order to avoid collapse or other dangers, survey teams are sent out periodically—a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. A drone, on the other hand, can fly over the roadways and collect images that can later be analyzed to determine the angle of each surface, which is then used to ascertain the road's safety.

Use Case: Logistics and Productivity
To stay on top of the progress being made at a job site, Heynen says, managers can utilize a drone to perform a visual survey at the end of each day, and then produce a large paper map of the site or create a projection of that site onto a whiteboard. During the regular all-hands meeting at the beginning of the following day, managers can use markers to draw on the map to show areas of progress, or lack thereof.

As construction progresses, builders can also work with designers and architects to ensure that the structure is hewing to plans, by comparing 3D models of the actual building-in-progress, created via drone imaging, to a 3D model of the planned facility. It is still very early-stage for this type of use case with drones, Heynen notes, but adds that he is bullish on the possibilities. "It can change the way people build things," he says. "Architects plan things, but sometimes they're not buildable. Before, there would be a redesign process or they would need a new model. [With drone-produced] models, you can start to work off the 'as-built' version, and the architect and builders can work collaboratively. The full implications of that are yet to be established."

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