Drone enhances producer’s inventory control, safety

By |  March 10, 2016

Tracking construction material inventories on a widespread aggregate site can be a daunting proposition – and a dangerous one. Just ask Jon Layne, business development manager at Sully-Miller Contracting Co.

“[Before], somebody would physically walk the pile with a GPS backpack,” says Layne, who shared insights about Sully-Miller’s drone use during a National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (NSSGA) webinar. “The result is a bunch of points that can then be tied together to build a rough 3-D model. This is good but not great. It takes a lot of time, and there’s a very large safety risk in terms of having someone physically walk the pile. Plus, there are areas of the stockpile you can’t access because it’s unsafe.”

Drones have quickly changed how safely and efficiently aggregate producers like Sully-Miller can track their inventories, as well as perform other tasks. Layne began exploring drones for commercial use at Sully-Miller in the first quarter of 2015. Now, Sully-Miller regularly flies a drone at the company’s Victorville, Calif., site.

“It was easy for our guys to get certified,” says Layne, who selected the Kespry drone system for Sully-Miller. “Now, we have two guys who specifically fly it – one in the asphalt division and another in our aggregate division.”

The drone system offers superior inventory control compared to Sully-Miller’s former method, Layne says. The company even tracks its recycled aggregates with a drone.

“Even though we have scales and everything on our conveyors, we can make sure material doesn’t leave the backdoor,” he says. “From an accountability standpoint, [the system] really gives us the ability to track information either daily, weekly or on a monthly basis.”

Increased safety is another benefit Layne lauds about the Kespry system.

“The biggest thing for us is the large emphasis on safety and the safe collection of information,” he says. “You don’t have to take a whole group of people out there to see the site. Simply fly the drone.”

Drone use also eliminates costly expenditures related to mine planning.

“Hiring a plane to take pictures of everything is not really cost efficient,” Layne says. “We can go out and do [what a plane does] in a single day. You can see what’s in the back of a guy’s toolbox, and you can almost see what someone had for lunch that day, too.”

The technology

So how does the Kespry drone system work? Adam Rice, business development director at Kespry, offered some insights during the NSSGA webinar.

“The technology is called photogrammetry,” Rice says. “It can build 3-D models out of 2-D pictures. The drone essentially looks like a lawn mower flying in a pattern over the jobsite.”

According to Rice, software compares the images taken along with GPS coordinates from the drone to develop georeference information.

“It gives you a good idea of the amount of material you have, and it gives you an accurate assessment of that material,” Rice says.

The photogrammetry process allows producers to identify areas on stockpiles for information that they might otherwise not be able to collect, Rice adds. Also, Kespry has coordinated with Sully-Miller and others to fine-tune its system.

“It’s not volume people want but tonnage,” Rice says. “We’ve created small tools in the system to get the exact data product they need. The goal is to see a tonnage that has already been converted with the set density in the system.”

Drone technology will continue to improve, he adds.

“We’re going to see a lot of new sensors and versatile data outputs,” Rice says. “You’re going to be able to see systems fly over pavement to gauge the health of the pavement, noting that there’s an issue with it. This can be done with thermal [technology], noting hotspots.”

Improvements are unlikely to stop there.

“Let’s say a bearing’s about to go,” Rice says. “There’s a way to automate that collection [and] processing of the data to say, ‘Hey, you need to inspect your bearing.'”

Rice recommends flying a drone in ideal weather conditions. Wind speeds on the ground should remain under 15 mph. Otherwise, the system sends the drone “home.”

In addition, a Kespry drone can cover 60 to 80 acres per flight, Rice says.

“Planning a mission that is 300 or 400 acres, you can take off and a drone will fly until its battery is low,” he says. “Then it will come home. You just switch batteries, walk through a pre-flight check and continue with the mission.”

Kevin Yanik

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry. He can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

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