Drone opportunities in the aggregate industry

By |  September 8, 2017

Not too long ago, the concept of deploying a drone in a commercial setting like a quarry was nothing more than a figment of the imagination.

Drones were science fiction. Something a filmmaker might portray on the big screen to depict the future. Not a fundamental part of doing business.

How quickly times have changed.

How producers traditionally measured stockpiles, for example, versus how they can measure them with a drone today has certainly been a dramatic shift in practice. Photo courtesy of URC Ventures

The last three years related to drones have evolved particularly rapidly for aggregate producers, some of whom are now flying drones for a variety of purposes.

“I’m really excited about the speed at which this innovation continues to accelerate,” says George Mathew, chairman and CEO at Kespry. “It’s amazing to see how far we have come, from five customers at the end of 2015 to more than 120 customers in the mining/aggregate space at the end of 2016.”

Michael Singer, CEO at DroneView Technologies, agrees the adoption rate of drones among aggregate producers has grown significantly over the last couple of years. And that adoption rate has been a sight to see.

“Two and a half years ago we were talking about what drones can do,” Singer says. “The conversation really pivoted last year. We’re seeing a groundswell of adoption. People are accepting the capability and efficacy of what drones are able to do.”

Getting a bearing on it

Kespry’s George Mathew, right, had the opportunity June 22 to participate in the American Leadership in Emerging Technology event at the White House and personally explain to President Donald Trump how his company’s drone technology works. Photo courtesy of Oliver Douliery/Picture/Alliance/DPA/AP Images

For a while, though, heads were spinning as interested aggregate producers sifted through the seemingly endless options available in the drone space.

As some producers describe, every Tom, Dick and Harry approached them over the last few years to vie for their business. Coming to grips with all of the drone options, as well as the different approaches to manage a drone program, could be a little overwhelming.

Fortunately for producers, the drone market has settled down some over the last year or so, according to John Blackmore, survey and mapping supervisor at Luck Stone. Fewer aircraft are on the market than a few years ago, he says, while the most capable service providers remain.

But producers faced a flurry of questions when commercial drones emerged a few years back. For producers, was the answer to buy a bunch of drones and form a department centered on the technology? What about leaning largely on a third party to handle all of the drone work? Or, maybe the solution was somewhere between the two extremes?

Perhaps a simpler question producers had to answer before fully immersing themselves in drones was this: Did a drone make sense to replace a long-in-place system?

A number of producers have found that the answer is an emphatic “yes,” especially from the standpoints of accuracy, cost, safety and timeliness.

“You’re able to achieve a result more accurately, more quickly, more safely and less expensively if you do it all right,” Singer says. “I always go back to the notion that the drone is just a tool to solve problems and answer questions. It’s an amalgamation of skills that helps solve problems, whether the problem is how much material is in my pile or mapping topography.”

How producers traditionally measured stockpiles, for example, versus how they can measure them with a drone has certainly been a dramatic shift in practice.

“What we find delightful about the aggregate industry is that it’s made up of businesses that have always had a need for very strong instrumentation, specifically the details for volumetric stockpiles,” Mathew says. “The approach was taking a GPS backpack or laser-guided survey equipment and manually climbing a stockpile. But there’s been a shift in the status quo, moving from very few points of data collection to literally hundreds of thousands of points generated from a drone. It gives you much stronger accuracy.”

Drone technology is getting better by the day, too.

“The good thing with drones is there are so many applications,” says Anil Nanduri, vice president of the New Technology Group and general manager of the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) segment at Intel Corp. “The technology is evolving. There isn’t one application leading to transform the drone ecosystem. It’s starting to get easier because now you have economies of scale, and that allows innovation to happen because people are invested in different areas.

“I can make a video drone, an inspection drone, etc.,” Nanduri adds. “In that process, the drone itself is getting better and smarter – and the confidence going into the drone is getting smarter.”

What’s next?

While drones are ideal at the moment as a stockpile management or mapping tool, service providers and aggregate producers are eager to explore the next frontier of applications.

Count Chris Kimball, the COO at Belt Tech Industrial, among this crowd. Kimball started Belt Tech’s belt cleaner service division, but his background is in aviation. Recently, he’s found opportunities to unite the two areas.

“I was reading about drones and how the industry is using them, and I thought they would be useful for conveyor service inspections,” Kimball says. “My job was to walk every conveyor once or twice a month at customer locations. So rather than walk the whole plant, we’re exploring flying a drone.”

To Kimball, a drone represents an opportunity to check head sections, belt cleaners, bearings and other components.
“Put an infrared thermometer on there,” he says. “Get a thermal imaging camera for a drone.”

But why stop at conveying equipment, Kimball adds.

“On the specialized thermal imaging and infrared, there are a lot of things we can do with access, whether it’s power centers, energy, the lines, substations or actual crusher components. Also, if the conditions are right you can find underground water leaks.”

Nanduri agrees the possibilities for drone technology really are endless.

“The question comes down to this: Is a drone ready to replace what you’re doing today,” Nanduri says.

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