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Drones another tool for Sumac Geomatics

May 23, 2016
by Graham Strong
In: Supplier Showcase

UAVs highly efficient at capturinga aerial data

Sumac Geomatics started using drones about three years ago as an inexpensive and efficient way to collect aerial data.

Sumac Geomatics started using drones about three years ago as an inexpensive and efficient way to collect aerial data.

It’s a clear, chilly day as Sumac’s six-bladed helicopter drone whirs up into the air over Resolute Forest Products’ Thunder Bay pulp mill. The operator remotely launches the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to a pre-determined hover point where the system takes over, flying it automatically through a series of computer-guided paths.

During flight, an onboard camera takes high-definition images of the wood chip piles below. Every 10-to-15 minutes, the drone flits back to the hover point and is manually landed to swap out its drained batteries before continuing on its route.

The operation takes about two hours, after which the images are brought back to the Sumac offices, where they are examined by photo interpretation experts. All told, Resolute gets accurate volumetric data within a day or two.

It’s actually that data analysis that is the key element in the whole process, said Todd Domney, CEO and co-managing partner of Sumac Geomatics Inc. of Thunder Bay.

“It’s great to have pretty pictures, but that’s not good enough. You’ve got to do something with it. The images are strictly the starting point to capture raw data.”

Sumac Geomatics was founded in 1996 as a forestry services company. As many companies in Thunder Bay have done, it shifted into other sectors of the economy, including mining, agriculture and land development as forestry declined. Today, Sumac bills itself as a remote sensing firm specializing in data gathering and analysis for a number of industries.

The company started using drones as another tool in the geomatics toolbox about three years ago, Domney said. It’s a tool with many possible applications in mining, but convincing mining companies of its value has been an uphill battle.

“We’ve spent a lot of time educating clients and meeting with them… A lot of people have interest in it, but don’t necessarily understand the technology,” he said.

Cost savings is perhaps the biggest argument for drones. The survey of Resolute’s chip piles, for example, took one operator about two hours to complete. Before Sumac started using drones, the same monthly survey took five people the better part of the day – and required a mill shutdown.

There are also cost savings for the mining industry, said Domney.

“Part of it is figuring out (mining companies’) needs and pains, and trying to see how to apply this new technology to their problems. So far, we’ve had pretty good success.”

Some applications are obvious. For example, mining exploration companies can save time and money by exploring targets through aerial photography. The images Sumac produces are at such a high resolution – down to about one centimetre per pixel – that it’s almost the same as being there. The resolution is more than enough to identify particular rocks and even vegetation that can give clues to potential mineralization.

Other mining applications include site mapping, digital terrain monitoring, data collection during an environmental assessment, environmental monitoring, and tailings pond monitoring. Theoretically, a drone-monitoring program may have helped avoid the recent tailings pond disasters in British Columbia and Brazil if there were detectable warning signs before the breach.

“UAVs offer an opportunity to monitor sites,” he said. “You can afford to fly these critical pieces of infrastructure on a very regular basis.”

Domney has already proven the accuracy of the technology in calculating the size of tailings ponds. Sumac compared tailings data gathered using its UAV techniques with LiDAR data from a piloted flight the same day and found the results were virtually identical.

In fact, over a small area, UAVs can do everything that piloted flights can do, and do them faster and at a lower cost. That’s usually the case for ground-based surveying as well, with the added benefit of greater safety in certain situations (such as measuring volumes of chips or tailings).

“Then there’s the overall accuracy – we are able to provide consistent, repeatable results from survey to survey to survey.”

Sumac is fast becoming one of the experts in Ontario for drone imaging. The company has worked with engineering and construction firms such as Hatch Mott MacDonald and LTL Group in Thunder Bay, and did some surveying in the Greater Toronto Area. Sumac is also involved in research, partnering with Queen’s University to investigate the possibilities of UAV magnetometry. The company plans to work directly with a mining company this spring.

“We’ve been on that bleeding edge (of UAV technology and applications) for quite a while,” Domney said.

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