Hinkle Contracting’s experience with drones highly positive

By |  August 30, 2017

Decision-makers at Hinkle Contracting Co. expected to see a payback on their January 2015 drone investment through efficiencies gained measuring stockpile volumes.

But the payback has been delivered to Hinkle – and then some – in a variety of ways, including through several opportunities the company has seized related to mine planning.

“We use the drone for a lot of things that we initially didn’t think we would be using it for,” says Jacob Spencer, plant manager at Hinkle’s Natural Bridge Stone location who also serves as the company’s drone pilot. “We use it for watershed analysis. Pit profiles. Reclamation. It’s just unreal.”

Originally, though, Hinkle justified its $30,000 drone purchase based on the elimination of survey crews the company would otherwise pay to provide stockpile volumes. The payback from the drone would come in time, but as Warren Hawkridge, senior vice president of operations estimates, the drone payback has probably been five times greater than Hinkle anticipated.

“We operate so many sites, so if we had to send a survey crew out regularly we’d have surveyors around a lot,” Hawkridge says. “Now we don’t have to.”

Plethora of opportunities

An aerial view of Hinkle Contracting Co.’s Bourbon Limestone operation in Paris, Kentucky, courtesy of the company’s eBee drone. Top photo by Kevin Yanik; other photos courtesy of Hinkle Contracting

Donnie Spencer, area operations manager of Hinkle Aggregates East, first brought the concept of utilizing a drone to Hawkridge. Donnie had been producing stockpile reports with an iPhone app, and he felt a drone could handle the task more effectively.

“It’s been a big help to me managing quarries and planning for the future,” Donnie says. “I felt it would be a good tool for us.”

Like a number of aggregate producers, Donnie caught wind of the drone opportunity from vendors who offer the technology. Some vendors offered to serve Hinkle with pilots and data management teams, but Donnie felt Hinkle had the resources to manage a drone program on its own.

“I’ve never been afraid of new technology,” he says.

A lack of fear has paid off dearly in the case of Hinkle’s drone, Donnie adds.

“After we got it, I was very impressed with what we were receiving from it,” he says. “We were getting quick results on the stockpiles, and it proved beneficial with mine planning. We used it at one location to plan our drainage into rock checks. It was a big help, and we would not have been able to do that other than by surveying and collecting data by hand, which would have been labor intensive. The payback was there really quick.”

Managing the tasks related to the drone internally makes sense for Hinkle because of the company’s size, Hawkridge adds.

“The payback is probably better for us because we’re not just flying one or two sites,” he says. “We’re flying 15. We have quarries in close proximity to each other, and we can designate someone to be the drone pilot like Jake.”

According to Donnie, deploying the drone has enhanced safety at Hinkle’s operations as well.

“Years ago, to do stockpiles you were taking a couple of guys with you and walking and climbing piles,” he says. “We’re no longer doing that, and that’s one of the hidden benefits.”

In addition, the technology is a tool that allows Hinkle to more easily look to the coming years.

“Our sites are very large, so it helps us figure out what we’ve done and plan for the future,” Hawkridge says. “Take a stripping subcontractor who comes in to move overburden for us: We file up based on a drone flyover. We did an aerial calculation and found that [the subcontractor] moved 100,000 [cu.] yd. for us but only billed us 99,000, and that we owed them for 1,000. Those are things we are doing that we hadn’t thought of when we originally got into this.”

The learning curve

Photo courtesy of Hinkle Contracting

Jacob Spencer, who serves Hinkle as plant manager at the company’s Natural Bridge Stone location, is the company’s drone pilot.

The drone Hinkle purchased is a senseFly eBee fixed-wing unit from Caron East Inc., a Maryland-based company that provided a software package with its hardware. Caron offered Hinkle on-site training, providing Jacob some of the details he needed to become the company’s drone pilot.

One insight Jacob gained from Caron was to not operate the drone with remote controls.

“Let the computer take care of it,” Donnie says. “They told us that most [drone] accidents occur when operators try to remotely handle the drone.”
Really, the only time Jacob would interact with the drone via a remote control is in the event of an emergency, he says.

“We have flight-planning software, and everything is basically pre-programmed based on what I want and what types of resolution I need,” Jacob says. “Altitudes are done beforehand.”

In all, being the drone pilot has been easier than Jacob envisioned.

“There is not much of a learning curve to fly the drone,” he says. “It’s really intuitive. Ours is well-designed. The biggest learning curve: I was familiar with CAD (computer-aided design) programs, but learning the flight-planning software and the post-processing software was what took the most time.”

Flying the drone itself is actually the quickest part of the whole process, Jacob adds.

“The legwork you do beforehand to make sure you can have a successful, safe flight and achieve what you’re looking to get out of it is where the time is spent,” he says. “Then, there’s the post-processing.

“To fly, say, an average-sized quarry, you’re looking at 25 to 35 minutes flight time with our drone depending on the site. Then, say you have 320 images all told for a site – that processing time is typically going to be 3 1/2 hours. But it’s an automated process.”

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