Memphis Stone & Gravel’s drone experience

By |  November 19, 2018
Using drone technology, Memphis Stone & Gravel can survey an entire site in a more efficient and safer manner. Photo courtesy of Memphis Stone & Gravel

Using drone technology, Memphis Stone & Gravel can survey an entire site in a more efficient and safer manner. Photo courtesy of Memphis Stone & Gravel

As a producer with more than a century of history, Memphis Stone & Gravel Co. has seen a number of trends surface and wholesale changes occur within the aggregate industry.

To survive and thrive for more than 100 years in this industry certainly requires thoughtful planning and a willingness to adapt. Operating in west Tennessee and north Mississippi, Memphis Stone & Gravel has made a name for itself as an aggregate provider for concrete and asphalt construction, bridge and home building, playgrounds and more.

One of the challenges of producing such a wide range of aggregate is managing the inventory. For years, Memphis Stone & Gravel utilized an aerial company that flew its sites annually to survey the available inventory. With that, however, came uncertainty and risk.

“Doing it once a year, you get a lot of surprises at the end of the year,” says Dave Leverett, environmental and exploration manager at Memphis Stone & Gravel.

Memphis Stone & Gravel eventually grew weary of unexpected surprises at the end of each year and sought to improve stockpile measurement accuracy.

Patrick Nelson, president of Lehman-Roberts Co., an affiliate of Memphis Stone & Gravel, expressed interest in 2014 in the companies using photogrammetry to improve the accuracy of inventory management.

At the 2015 AGG1 Aggregates Academy & Expo in Baltimore, Leverett and other Memphis Stone & Gravel representatives met with Stockpile Reports, a provider of stockpile inventory technology that blends advanced software with human intelligence. The companies ultimately partnered, with Stockpile Reports processing Memphis Stone & Gravel’s drone data and generating reports based on that data to provide more accurate stockpile assessments, as well as mine planning assistance.

“There are other technologies on the market that do this, but require a lot of manual labor,” says Maury Margol, head of sales and business development at Stockpile Reports, referring to the process of generating data reports. “The difference is we’re automated.”

The next step

Around the same time it came to an agreement with Stockpile Reports, Memphis Stone & Gravel purchased a DJI drone from AirGon, a company it was also introduced to at the 2015 AGG1.

After a new management plan was devised, Leverett was responsible for flying the drone. He would then download the drone’s photographs and data and upload them to Stockpile Reports’ website.

“The drone gets up in the air, takes the imagery needed in an overlapping method and the computer can stitch the imagery together like a jigsaw puzzle,” Margol says.

Margol notes this process is similar to how an iPhone takes a panoramic photo, stitching together the photographed elements piece by piece.

The benefits of Stockpile Reports’ technology were realized immediately, according to Memphis Stone & Gravel. Through the use of Stockpile Reports, Memphis Stone & Gravel had more accurate site maps and inventory measurements for future planning.

“We do the drone flights [with Stockpile Reports] to confirm what we think we have in the system,” Leverett says. “The frequency and magnitude of inventory adjustments, or corrections, has become less frequent.”

Saving time

In addition to the automated data reports, perhaps equally as beneficial for Memphis Stone & Gravel is the opportunity to conduct drone flights as often as desired.

“Our subscriptions are unlimited measurements, so we have customers that go out daily to measure,” Margol says. “This is all we do – stockpile measurements.”

For three years from 2015 to this year, Leverett flew almost 300 drone flights, some even in the company’s mining areas, and estimates he was making more than a half-dozen flights per month.

“During those three years, I would fly each plant every other month, then do the remainder of the plants the next month,” Leverett says. “The benefit of having that monthly inventory update has been a tremendous difference.”

However, while the ability to survey sites monthly via drone proved helpful, it also proved time consuming for Leverett.

“To do 13 or 14 sites, it would occupy a week or two of my time each month,” Leverett says. “There were times I needed to be elsewhere but I had to get the inventory done.”

The time-saving solution, therefore, was to outsource the drone flights while still utilizing Stockpile Reports for data reports.

“Just this year, we upgraded a little bit,” Leverett says. “[Stockpile Reports] is providing that service start-to-finish with drone pilots that come out and fly our sites.”

With an estimated 90,000 drone pilots in the United States, according to Margol, there’s a wide availability of Federal Aviation Administration 107-certified drone pilots to assist Memphis Stone & Gravel with its site surveying.

“The next logical step is, instead of you flying the drone, we can fly the drone for you,” Margol says. “We have pilots all over the country. For someone to get in a truck and drive 16 sites, it adds up to: do you want to buy a lawn mower or pay someone to come cut it?”

This year, Memphis Stone & Gravel agreed to a contract to outsource drone flights to Stockpiles Reports’ “army of pilots,” as Margol describes it. The service operates similar to how an Uber ride request does. Rather than having a Memphis Stone & Gravel employee fly the drone, the company can book a drone pilot to survey sites for them.

“Memphis Stone & Gravel logs in, books the flight, somebody shows up on site, does the flight and we process all the data,” Margol says. “They’re doing that at all of their sites.”

Added benefits

The implementation of drones in site surveying equates to increased efficiency, Leverett says, a goal every aggregate producer strives for.

“Going from days to survey a site to, in some cases, minutes at most to gather all the information you need has been pretty amazing,” Leverett says. “When I used to go set up a tripod for surveying, I figured I’d be there all day. If it rained all day, you’re shut down. With a drone and smartphone tech, I can look at a weather map and watch and see if there’s a clearing, head out with the drone, launch and have a flight that lasts 10 minutes and be back on the ground.”

Up until this year, Dave Leverett was flying more than a half-dozen drone flights per month at Memphis Stone & Gravel Co. sites. Photo courtesy of Memphis Stone & Gravel

Up until this year, Dave Leverett was flying more than a half-dozen drone flights per month at Memphis Stone & Gravel Co. sites. Photo courtesy of Memphis Stone & Gravel

Leverett estimates that the shortest drone flight of any Memphis site is about 6 1/2 minutes, covering 25 acres of land. Some of the longer flights might be closer to 15 minutes, covering roughly 40 acres, but he also notes that each site is unique depending on its shape and the design of the flight plan.

In addition to increased efficiency, the added safety concern of using a drone can’t be overlooked. Rather than having employees climb towering stockpiles, drones can simply survey those same stockpiles from the air.

“I definitely think the safety aspect is something that should be considered,” Leverett says. “Having done surveying for 35 years, I’ve been the guy who has had to climb up and down stockpiles. If you’re on a plant site that’s active and operating, you have to watch out for heavy equipment moving around, and they have to watch out for you. In my younger days, I didn’t think about it much. Looking back on it, why did I do that?”

While the shift from traditional site surveying to drone surveying may sound daunting on the surface, the Stockpile Reports model is one route producers can go to simplify.

“It’s a user-friendly platform,” Leverett says. “Most of our foremen have bought into it and realize it’s a fairly easy tool to use. They can gain information that’s useful to them in the day-to-day operations.”

Looking forward

As the old adage reads, “old habits die hard.” Producers are comfortable with the way they’ve traditionally run their operations. All things considered, however, the trend toward drones becoming essential in the aggregate industry may be undeniable.

Margol insists drones will become more prevalent in the aggregate industry in the years to come.

“Everybody is rushing to buy drones now,” Margol says. “Software data storage is becoming cheaper, internet is faster and drones have become better.

“This is showing that this is really where the market is going to end up down the road. The question is: what do you do with the drone and who processes the data?”

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