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The Drift: Exyn Technologies brings autonomous drone-survey technology to Sudbury

U.S. company believes automation underground is the next big development in mining

Raffi Jabrayan can sum up in two words the motivation behind Exyn Technologies’ move to Northern Ontario: growth potential.

With an eye to being closer to existing and potential mining industry clients, the Philadelphia, PA-headquartered drone-surveying company set up its first international office at the NORCAT Underground Centre, north of Sudbury, in January.

“It’s a natural fit given that we’re a software company that operates in mining,” said Jabrayan, Exyn’s director of markets and industries, from his office in Toronto.

“Sudbury’s quickly become the (mining technology) epicentre with places like NORCAT, and of course there are some other really, really good companies up there.”

Exyn was launched in 2014 as a spinoff of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception (GRASP) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thanks to artificial intelligence, the company’s fully autonomous drone, the ExynAero, can fly underground, survey an area, and produce a 3D map, all with the touch of a button and without any additional infrastructure required.

Using light detection and ranging (LiDAR), the drone collects millions of data points which can then be analyzed and used to make underground development and production decisions. 

Specializing in beyond-line-of-sight flights, Exyn’s drones can access areas that won’t work with GPS, are hard to reach or hazardous to mine workers, or those that would be time-consuming to survey and inspect using conventional methods.

Despite the “cool” factor associated with a self-flying drone, Jabrayan said the company’s leading interest is safety.

“It’s ensuring that miners get home safe at the end of every shift,” he said. “What we’re doing with our technology is reducing the number of hours that are needed underground.

“You don’t need to get as close to the brow. You don’t need to get as close to anywhere where there might be potential rock falls. You always work under supported ground. And what we’re able to do is just greatly, greatly reduce any sort of risk to the surveyors.”

Operating in the mining industry since 2017, Exyn’s current clients include Canadian gold miner Dundee Precious Metals and engineering company Sandvik.

Just this week, during the 2021 virtual iteration of the Prospectors and Developers Association (PDAC) convention, Sandvik and Exyn announced they were partnering to enable their two technologies to work in tandem.

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That Exyn chose Sudbury for its first international location is no coincidence.

It was at NORCAT’s underground test facility – the former Fecunis Adit Mine previously owned by Falconbridge – where Exyn held its first underground flight in Canada, which doubled as an opportunity to showcase the technology for Dundee Precious Metals.

At the time, Jabrayan was working as Dundee’s manager of digital and innovation projects.

So when it came time for Exyn to expand its horizons, NORCAT was already on the company’s radar.

“It’s an excellent, excellent facility,” Jabrayan said. “NORCAT is such a great place to test your technology, to teach people a little bit more about mining, and what could be possible to actually show career opportunities.”

Companies interested in the technology can either purchase it outright and train employees how to use it, or they can hire Exyn to perform a scan and then apply the resulting data to their operation.

One person has been hired to work at the Sudbury office, but Jabrayan said the company plans to add more staff over time.

“As the business grows, we're looking to have service technicians on site, we're looking to have business development people to actually grow the business, not just in Sudbury but even further north, and, if we see that the service part is growing, we may bring in surveyors to actually provide it as a service,” Jabrayan said.

If and when that time comes, they'll look locally to fill any vacancies, rather than bring in people from Toronto or Pennsylvania, he added.

As mines go deeper and it becomes more difficult to extract minerals from underground, Jabrayan believes it's just a matter of time before automation underground becomes the standard in mining.

And he's excited that Exyn Technologies, aided by its presence in Sudbury, will play a key role in helping make that transformation happen.

“This was not something out of necessity. We really wanted to do this,” Jabrayan emphasized.

“We really believe in this growth potential, and I think that Sudbury is going to play such a huge role in the growth of Exyn, but, furthermore, in the growth of autonomy in underground mining, which is basically the next generation of mining all over the world.”

The Drift features profiles on the people, companies and institutions making important contributions to Greater Sudbury’s mining sector. From exploration, operation and remediation to research and innovation, this series covers the breadth of mining-related expertise that was born out of one of the world’s richest mining camps and is now exported around the world.