Drone tech takes next step

Drones have already carved out a significant niche in the Australian mining landscape, but they could soon be doing more with less human interaction at sites around the world.

 

A trial by IFS Labs, a think tank within Sweden-based IFS Research and Development, has taken drone technology to the next level by combining it with the Internet of Things to deliver and efficient and reliable proof of concept for future application across a range of industries, including mining.

During testing in Europe, a drone was used to detect faults in the flow of power lines before automatically generating a work order based on the irregularity for follow-up.

Using computer image analysis, the drone was able to recognise a break in the power line, and by coordinating with IFS applications, the end user was able to observe and process additional information via a work order to action appropriate maintenance and repair.

While power lines may not be mine specific, it is the collaboration between the drone, the likes of which are already used on mining projects, and other systems to lessen the human involvement in fault detection which has IFS excited about its application in industry contexts.

“I’m a firm believer in the idea that we should never look at new technologies in an isolated way,” IFS Labs Director Bas de Vos told National Mining Chronicle.

“Yes, if you take a drone today you can already see value in that – if you look at our power line example, it makes sense that if you have difficult or dangerous areas to access you can take the drones and fly them over without having to manually detect problems.

“But I believe in this idea that one and one equals three if you have the correct one and one. If you say ‘what can drones do more than humans, except for getting into those dangerous areas’, if you combine the technology with all kinds of advanced analytics, visual or computer imaging processing – that’s what we’ve done here with the proof of concept.”

Mr de Vos said the value of using a drone in the industrial sense was significantly boosted when the drone collected and analysed advanced data such as temperature and images as well as accessed areas.

“What happens a lot is we fly the drone up, we see something and then a human being opens their computer and starts typing up a work order – that’s something you don’t want,” he said.

 “If you have advanced analytics at your disposal you can automatically detect a break in a power line – why can’t you then automatically create a work order that’s scheduled optimally and contains all the data from the collection?

“GPS coordinates, pictures, readings of the surroundings – so there’s as little human intervention from discovering the problem to doing that.

“That’s basically our proof of concept.”

By combining a drone with IFS’ Internet of Things Business Connector – a tool which helps leverage IoT signals, IFS was able to automate the hazard identification process right down to the work order.

The technology could be used in a range of mining applications; drones are now used in Australia for safety and surveying, with operators bringing in significant coin as demand for the technology grows.

But while automating the analytic capabilities of new technologies like drones could be seen as detrimental to long term job prospects in the industry, Mr de Vos said the systems would likely improve work conditions for people.

“I’m a big believer in implementing technology to support efficiency and the quality of jobs,” he said.

“Technology like this could of course lead to places where you could actually do with less people, but there’s a lot of reasons that can impact that.

“Sheer processing efficiency can do that, the entire IT industry is a prime example; back in the 60s, people were entering data manually on papers in an archive. In the 1990s, everyone was data typing and today we are getting it from IT devices.

“At the same time more people are working today than were working in the 60s. Jobs will go elsewhere but it’s not so much replacing human beings, I think it’s about making human beings more efficient and effective.”

And while the standard definition of a drone as its come to be known may typically be of a flying machine, Mr de Vos said thinking for the use of automated analysis technology could extend further than this in the mining context.

“A lot of people look at drones as things that are flying, but if you extend the word drone a little bit more in robotics, you can also have driving drones,” he said.

“Maybe you have a mine underground – you could envision a drone driving through dangerous or difficult areas of the mine which could be used to go through to the mine shaft or tunnels.”

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