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More efficient quarrying with drone-aided solutions

First publishedin Aggregates Business Europe & International
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Finning UK quarry - drone image.JPG
A drone image of Caterpillar loading and hauling models at work at a UK quarry pic: Finning UK

2018 is shaping up to be another lively year in the global quarry drones and associated software market. Guy Woodford reports.

Caterpillar’s early 2017 investment in Airware, the San Francisco-based provider of complete commercial drone solutions, is continuing to prove a shrewd move by the world’s biggest-selling construction, quarrying and mining equipment manufacturer.

Due to its proven results in quarrying and mining operations in North America, Europe and Australia, and a growing understanding of its money saving and efficiency-boosting potential, there has been a notable increase over the past year in Caterpillar dealerships in Asia, West Africa and parts of the Middle East offering quarrying customers Airware’s cloud-based solution through Cat Connect Services.

Airware allows quarry managers to plan, dispatch jobs and fly drones on repeat flight patterns around one or more quarries anywhere globally. This saves a great deal of time and money when needing to do regular site surveying work. Through the Airware solution, quarry managers can safely obtain detailed and highly accurate stockpile reports along with 2D and 3D site models showing, among other things, quarry face heights and the condition of haul roads and berms. 

Over the past year, Caterpillar quarry customers in countries including Nigeria, Ivory Coast, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Israel are said to have seen considerable improvements in the efficiency of their operations using the Airware solution.

Such improvements are set to become even more apparent with another cloud-utilising software innovation, Airware’s machine efficiency module developed with Caterpillar, coming onto the market later this year. Previewed at the CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2017 exhibition in Las Vegas, USA, Airware’s machine efficiency module will allow users to capture and report back daily on the idling time and linked fuel waste of all loading and hauling equipment models in both mixed and single OEM fleets. The software allows for 3D and 2D models of a job site to be created, enabling quarry operators to locate exactly where and at what times machines are most idle. This means potential problems, such as excessive machine idling times at shift changeovers, can be quickly ironed out.

On the Airware machine efficiency module 2D quarry site maps, loaders and haulers are colour-coded depending on whether they’ve been idle for up to two minutes, two-five minutes, or above five minutes. This enables easy identification of the worst-offending machines.

Since its preview at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2017, Airware and Caterpillar have worked with quarry owners to identify and add further key performance indicators (KPIs) to the Airware machine efficiency module solution. As a result, quarry operators can now also analyse loading and hauling fleet cycle times, and find out exactly how many loads each fleet hauler truck has carried and dumped. The soon-to-be-available 2018 version of the Airware machine efficiency module also comes with a more attractive and easier-to-use user interface.

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Stockpile Reports' SR Pro solution is said by the company to be the only one globally that works from both air and (iPhone) ground cameras

Benjamin Hugonet, Airware’s vice president of European sales, said: “In West Africa and parts of Asia and the Middle East we have been able to work with very engaged [Cat] dealers in terms of their embrace of innovation and new services and solutions.”

JA Delmas, the Cat dealer for West Africa, TIPL Tractors India, the authorised Cat dealer in North and East India, Bhutan and Nepal, and SDI subsidiary Tractors Malaysia, the Cat dealer for Malaysia and Brunei, are all said by Hugonet to be playing crucial roles in explaining to customers the benefits of Airware’s offer through Cat Connect Services.

TIPL Tractors India (TIPL) was already engaged in a drone initiative as shareholders in an Indian drone flight company, SenseBird, prior to its promotion of Airware cloud-based data processing solutions to quarrying and mining customers. SenseBird, on behalf of TIPL, is now promoting the Airware solution in India. Furthermore, SenseBird is exploring new applications for the Airware solution in domains such as urban planning, which is yielding a good response from the Indian government. “It is very normal for them to sell drone data processing solutions on top of drone flight services. As a result, TIPL started very early in this area,” said Hugonet.

Based on his experience, Hugonet believes that in Europe and Asia there is a greater capability to integrate drone and drone data processing solutions quickly. “However, the companies and site managers working in the European quarry industry are more conservative than those working in Asia. In Europe, potential customers want to set up some trials and need to convince many different people within their organisations before they will start to use new technologies.

“Asian companies want to catch up very quickly on new technology, and have a huge appetite for it, including everything linked to digitisation. This has meant they have been quicker to try Airware solutions. I expect this could lead to very quick growth for us in this region.”

Of the imminent release of the updated version of the Airware machine efficiency module, Hugonet said: “The module that includes machine telematics and the new KPIs is very important. It will allow customers to access their entire archive of hauling and loading machine data reports on one cloud-platform. It will also be far easier for Cat dealers to offer business intelligence to customers around the performance of their machines.”

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A screen grab of Maptek's geotechnical monitoring solution for quarry operators

An innovative, patented LiDAR-powered solution, developed by global geospatial specialist 3D Laser Mapping, is set to boost safety, efficiency and productivity in the quarrying, mining and recycling industries.

Comprising three integrated software modules, SITEMONITOR LIVE captures and manages 3D point cloud data. The robust and scalable solution’s three modules, +VOLUMES, +BERMS and +SLOPES, each address a specific site problem and although available separately, can be combined on a single user interface, enabling site-wide visibility in real-time. SITEMONITOR LIVE also comes with an IP67 rating for effective use in dusty and humid environments.

Dr. Graham Hunter, executive chairman of 3D Laser Mapping, said: “SITEMONITOR LIVE strengthens health and safety policies, taking site teams out of potentially dangerous areas where hazards are common.

“This product offers the possibility to monitor site-wide operations, from critical slope stability alerts to real-time volumetric calculations by combining a number of automated systems. As a result, site managers can speed up key processes, while ensuring safety remains a priority.”

+VOLUMES enables site teams to manage stockpiles by data generated from laser scanners, removing the need to measure them manually, while +BERMS is an automated monitoring system that allows a site to continually assess the structural integrity of berms. Suitable for industrial and environmental settings, +SLOPES collects and compares time-series data to identify precursors that could lead to slope failure, such as rockfall and slope displacement.

Maptek’s mine measurement business manager, Jason Richards, has spoken to Aggregates Business about the company’s solutions for quarries.

“Maptek offers two mine measurement solutions for geotechnical monitoring of quarries.

“The first is the mapping and extraction of structures and discontinuities to allow operations to safely and accurately predict potential failure zones within a highwall - we call this kinematic analysis. The process is performed using the intuitive point cloud processing and modelling software I-Site Studio, and working directly from 3D laser scan point cloud data collected with I-Site laser scanners.

“The second approach is a deployable monitoring solution, Maptek Sentry, which allows operations to monitor movement on a highwall or quarry face to determine if there is any subsidence over time. Sentry deploys a Maptek laser scanner on a specialised trailer configuration that allows the scanner to run 24/7 to monitor a quarry face. Sub-millimetre accuracy data can be plotted to determine displacement over time.

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Eka Software Solutions has stressed the financial rationale for using drones (UAVs) and the greater data accuracy that they can offer quarry operators UK

“A system which allows remote, safe survey and monitoring is an immediate benefit in meeting safety KPIs. I-Site software analysis tools, which are intuitive and workflow-based, mean that accurate, up-to-date data can be reported and distributed quickly for use in planning and production decisions.

“If the quarry walls can be steepened and mined more safely then costs are reduced and safety measures met. Maptek mine measurement technology reduces drill and blast costs as well as excavation costs and quarries can be dug deeper to extract more commodities to deliver to market.”

Of the take-up of Maptek’s technology in quarries, Richards says: “Globally Maptek has seen many small quarries take up I-Site laser scanning technology, mostly as a consulting service, to analyse their structures and perform kinematic analysis in specific sections of the operation. Typically these studies relate to safety or environmental programs related to operating or regulatory conditions.

“Companies such as AECOM, HOLCIM and Golder Associates utilise Maptek expertise. For example, in 2016 AECOM contracted Maptek to undertake laser scanning of a Holcim (Australia) quarry in Victoria for a geotechnical study. The task was to scan the entire quarry and extract detailed geotechnical information such as geological features and discontinuities for kinematic analysis.

“I-Site technology helped Golder Associates to quickly and accurately undertake geotechnical mapping and analysis when a government-mandated review of slope stability in a 4km long quarry was ordered.

“The technology has been used at quarries across Australia and the world, including to devise practical, cost-effective safety studies in the UK, and to analyse slope failure in New Zealand.”

Commenting on how I-Site Studio adds value to data captured by drones, Richards says: “The huge advantage of an I-Site terrestrial laser scanner is that data acquisition takes minutes, and is instantly in 3D format with no processing required before analysis can begin in I-Site Studio.

“Bad weather is not a problem for operating terrestrial laser scanners. I-Site scanners can still reliably and accurately collect high resolution 3D data in rain or windy conditions, where a drone will be unlikely to fly due to safety reasons.”

Stuart Watt, general manager of bulk at Eka Software Solutions, a leading global provider of cloud-based smart commodity management software for industries including quarrying, has stressed the financial rationale for using drones (UAVs) and the greater data accuracy that they can offer quarry operators.

“Early adopters of UAV technology in the aggregates industry have radically changed the way that stockpile and quarry surveys are carried out. Today, walking the stockpile is a rare occurrence; and you’re more likely to spot a licensed flight operator controlling the monthly stockpile at a computer screen than see a pilot striding out across the yard before an early-morning flight.

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Ground control points being surveyed to obtain the exact coordinates before a drone flight in a quarry in Niger, West Africa. Pic: JA Delmas (Caterpillar) and Airware

“The financial calculus behind drone use is straightforward. Whereas a monthly piloted stockpile survey costs between US$4,000 and $10,000, the capital cost of a state-of-the-art drone plus a standard SLR camera is in the region of $2,000 to $5,000 – and is set to fall still further as adoption rates increase. Factoring in the costs of training staff in compliant drone operation, UAVs can save a stockyard operator up to 50% of its monthly costs.

“The cost advantage of using drones over manned flights – plus their superior robustness over human alternatives - means that they can be used far more frequently, to build up a much more accurate view of the site over time. Because drones can be re-used every day, one machine can be co-opted into other costly, time-consuming or dangerous activities.”

Watt says drones’ versatility means they can be found gathering information to improve the design of pits and dumps; sending data to site managers who are either planning or executing blasting work; monitoring haul-road conditions to optimise traffic flow; inspecting hard-to-reach areas and spotting details that may not be visible from the ground; or improving site safety by regular monitoring of worksite hazards.

He continues: “As the costs of the technology come down, we can expect the financial calculus to become even more compelling. However, that’s only part of the argument for adopting advanced drone technology.

“The second part of the story is data accuracy. Both piloted and ‘walk-the-stockpile’ survey methods have a standard variation of three centimetres. But because drones can capture images at extremely oblique angles and fly at much lower ranges than manned planes, they give much more accurate measurements. A variation of two centimetres or less is common. Add a high-end camera to the set-up and the variation can go as low as 1.5cm per pixel.”

Given the expanse of land that is often involved in a survey, Watt emphasises that these small differences may at first appear insignificant. But when replicated over a full-sized stockyard, and then amplified by the various data-driven processes in the supply chain, Watt says they can mean the difference between a million-dollar profit and a million-dollar loss.

“The simple fact is, more finely granulated measurements produce more accurate models,” he adds. “And those models mean less variance in inventory allowances and a decrease in inventory swings. That in turn helps alleviate any end-of-year write offs and, at the other end of the value chain, gives buyers and traders a far more accurate picture of current availability and replenishment needs.”

SR Pro, an inventory management software solution from Stockpile Reports, is continuing to prove a popular “whole process” tool among North American quarry customers, with Stockpile Reports’ management keen to widen its use among quarry customers globally.

A quarry operator’s finance team, operation managers, and measurers can all work together with SR Pro, which offers a centralised, cloud-hosted system to manage, conduct and approve stockpiled material inventory.

SR Pro uses image-based measurement technology which can be used with your own drones and iPhones, or Stockpile Reports’ sourced and piloted drones. Stockpile Reports claims the solution is the only one globally that works from both air and ground cameras. The company’s patented iPhone app enables you to measure indoor piles, where drones can’t fly.

SR Pro is said to allow you to easily and quickly manage your quarry stockpile inventory more often and for less money. Along with pile volumes and tonnage, you can obtain detailed reports showing hi-res imagery, video playback, 2D and 3D pile models, along with pile condition risks and measurement scoring.

SR Pro automatically scores the quality of the measurements you and your colleagues perform, whether you missed part of the pile toe or surface, or whether there was site or pile condition risks affecting your measurement. If the measurement quality was high, then your report gets stamped with a ‘Verified Report’. With lesser quality measurements, you can manually evaluate it with your quarry operation team and decide whether or not the pile should be re-measured or cleaned up.

David Boardman, Stockpile Reports’ founder and CEO, says: “You can use SR Pro in multiple ways; whether that’s stockpile inventory, sales forecasting, or controlling production by, for example, knowing when to shut off the crusher, or for general business planning and preparing for audits.

“Our quarry customers like the flexibility and control SR Pro gives them. They like the fact that they can use their own drones or that we can provide drones along with our own pilots to carry out flights at their work sites. They also find it a very fast and very accurate solution.

“We are trading in 32 countries, but the vast majority of our customers are in the United States and Canada. We see Europe, for example, as a big potential growth area for us. There are a lot of quarries there.”

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