Underground Surveys and Inspections with Drones

Flying a drone in confined locations isn’t an easy task. It requires piloting skills, and previous knowledge of the surroundings. But what happens if you need to fly a drone where there is no GPS, no light, and humans can’t go? A new drone certification program from Flyability will help provide Elios drone owners with a way to assess their piloting skills in these kinds of situations, but that’s just the first step for organizations looking to adopt the technology.

The Canada-based company, Unmanned Aerial Services Inc. (UAS Inc.), is working on solutions for performing underground inspections, in a GPS denied environment, and they’re using Flyability’s Elios drone. Last month, UAS Inc. founders, Matt MacKinnon and Jason Carignan, performed multiple missions in the North American Palladium (NAP) Lac des Iles mine near Thunder Bay, Ontario. The NAP is one of only two pure palladium producers in the world, and its extensive operation in the Lac des Iles mine requires frequent inspections to monitor ground conditions and ensure both the safety and productivity of their workers.

Underground mines are dangerous places, especially after mining and excavation which result in open caverns, called open stopes. To prevent caving in the surrounding area and ensure the safety and continuity in the mine, the material removed from these open stopes must be replaced – a process known as “backfilling”.

However, before replacing the material, NAP performs an inspection/survey to determine the condition of the area, and calculate how much backfill material is required to fill the void and ensure the surrounding ground is stable. During the inspection, it’s also important to evaluate the height and condition of a stope ceiling (known as the back) to know what it looks like after blasting, in order to prevent future problems on other levels of the mine, which could potentially threaten lives and production.

Traditional surveying tools for this kind of operation include: a Cavity Monitoring Survey (CMS) on a cart or boom arm, which is ineffective at getting through the tall piles of muck on the floor, in going around corner, or seeing beyond a deep brow; or a borehole camera which is lowered into the stope through an existing drill hole, which can also be ineffective at completely inspecting the area due to being limited to the actual location of the hole and where it exits into the stope from above. This is where UAS Inc. comes in.

With the help of the Elios drone, equipped with both a 1080p HD video camera as well as an embedded thermal camera, and by standing safely under supported ground – well away from the restricted area – the team was able to to gather accurate information about the ground conditions, geological features, and dikes (fault lines) that may indicate where walls are likely to fall. With the collected data, the company can use AutoCad to create a rough model of the stope, used to evaluate risks and plan work.

In contrast to a full day with the traditional surveying tools, Elios performed the mission in 1 hour, and were also able to remove the human element from this hostile and dangerous environment.

 

Although this proves that using a drone can be safer and more efficient when compared to the traditional methods, there’s also a lot of planning, studying and training behind all of it. To discuss this, we connected with Matt MacKinnon, Founder and President of Unmanned Aerial Services Inc. He works in nearly every facet of the day-to-day operations of the company, from meetings with clients and organizing the inspections, right down to working until all hours of the night on the bench, testing and tuning all future projects.

 

Commercial UAV News: How did you come up with the idea of using drones for this kind of operations and why did you choose the Elios drone?

Matt MacKinnon: The actual idea of flying a drone underground has been around as far back as the original APM and multi-wii days, and I don’t believe I can take any credit myself for being “the individual” who had the original idea of flying underground.

However, being born and raised in a community that relies very heavily on underground mining, and having many family members who are involved in the mining industry in a variety of different roles, it was really easy to put 2 and 2 together (that being, the need for vital information underground in inaccessible areas + my hobby at the time which was FPV racing and Long Range FPV flights) and it was from those conversations with different family members at family gatherings that originally made me pursue the idea of flying a drone underground.

With respect to why we chose the Elios, there are 2 contributing factors.

  1. I had originally started pursuing the idea of flying underground about 4 years ago, and during that time I had been extensively testing different UAV configurations and components underground, at the time, using off the shelf components and very quickly realized that the hobby grade equipment that was commonly being used on surface was not up to the task underground…and so began the journey of seeking out custom and purpose build components and equipment.

Flying underground is very different than flying on the surface. Radio signals behave very differently underground and when you start flying beyond line of sight, and you’re pushing the limits of the range of your radio systems, there is no time or space to correct yourself. The inherent problem underground is that video and/or signal loss can happen very unexpectedly. Unlike on the surface in open air, if you lose your link of signal and the failsafe engages (if configured properly, that is), the drone just Returns To Home or has a nice controlled descent. Underground, however, we do not have any GPS Positioning or Position Hold to assist us should we enter into a failsafe state. Typically, when flying underground you have 3-5 seconds to re-establish your video (which is usually the weak link) before you drift into the walls, which generally results in a crash if you can’t see what’s going on. When you are flying a conventional UAV with standard prop guards it tends to not be enough protection to fully ensure that the UAV is not lost, which brings me to the second reason below of why we picked the Flyability Elios.

  1. Jason Carignan, the Co-Founder of UAS Inc., is the individual who actually first reached out to Flyability in the summer of last year and trialed the Elios for the first time underground with very good results. Having the ability to utilize the collision-resistant cage with the ability to interact with the surrounding environment had proven to be the final piece of the puzzle that allow us to be able to reliably push the limits of what was thought to be possible. After that, we felt confident that if we lose video or the control link, we would have time to re-establish our connection and still be able to complete the inspection but to also help ensure the safe return of our Elios and the delivery of the High Definition footage to our clients.

 

How efficient and usable is the drone’s collision-resistant cage when flying it underground? Does it give you the freedom to not worry about what’s surrounding the drone, or do you still have to be extra careful?

The protective cage around the Flyability Elios has allowed us to access and inspect areas that would have been impossible to enter with a traditional drone, or with most any other traditional inspection method in use currently… but yes, we also have to be extra careful when flying underground mainly due to protruding anchor bolts, cable bolts, hanging mesh, etc.

I have included a screenshot of a recent inspection that we performed a few weeks back. In the photo, you will see that we entered into a space that was approx. 2’-4’ in height, roughly 40’ down around a blind corner beyond line of sight. Without the protective cage of the Elios, it would have been extremely difficult to safely enter with a traditional UAV without a protective cage because of the very tight conditions that we were asked to operate within.

There are many hazards located underground that pose a risk to our Elios. Almost every flight has a very high risk of completely losing our Elios. The areas that we are flying into are all no-go zones for humans, and in almost every inspection flight underground, the chances of recovering our Elios if something goes wrong is slim to nonexistent.

Every inspection starts with an actual site visit of the area that we are being asked to inspect to ensure that we have as much information about the site as possible, and that we have verified the airflow rates. Then, we create an inspection plan based off any provided prints and/or drawing that are available in conjunction with the actual site visit itself to ensure we can reduce the risk as much as possible… but the risk of losing our Elios is ever present, so that helps keep our pilots on the top of their game while they are flying thousands of feet underground.

 

Have you performed any other mission with the Elios drone apart from the one at the North American Palladium Lac des Iles mine?

We have, yes!

Currently to-date, we have performed inspections at various mine sites throughout Ontario and Quebec since officially launching UAS Inc. back in January 2017.

We have received requests internationally as well but have not flown any inspections beyond Canada, but we are capable of deploying our team anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

We are also able to provide support during Search and Rescue operations to assist rescuers with entering into unstable structures and safely look for any victims that could have been trapped and requiring rescue.

 

How did you get companies to accept the usage of a drone for their operations? Was it easy to convince people that this would be a better tool than the traditional ways?

This was probably one of the most difficult parts!

The majority of the miners and the mine companies themselves loved the idea of this technology and it wasn’t hard to get them to imagine a drone flying underground to perform inspections in areas that humans aren’t allowed to enter. The difficult part was nobody wanted to be the first. Nearly every mine I approached asked: “Where have you done other inspections?” And in those early days, every mine said: “come back when you have done an inspection and show us what you can do”. Much to my surprise, nobody wanted to be the first!

Eventually, we caught our break when a mining contractor ran into issues while completing a fresh air raise. They required information in an area that was roughly 300’ up vertically within unsupported ground. We were fortunate enough to get the call and were able to fly up the 300 feet up, beyond line of sight well being over 4000 feet underground. We were able to provide our client with results from the inspection that way beyond their expectations and has since proved to be a defining moment that helped establish UAS Inc. and the actual practicality and usability of flying the Elios underground to perform visual inspections that were otherwise impossible to accomplish with other traditional underground inspection methods.

 

What are the company’s plans for the near or distant futures?

Quite simply, our near future plans are to keep doing what we are already doing! To continue to push the limits and boundaries of what is possible with the ever-evolving technology.

In the following months, we will be rolling out some custom built hardware, software, and equipment that has been specifically designed to handle the extremely harsh conditions that are ever present underground and help contribute to increasing the overall safety of the men and women who are working underground each and every day.

As for our long-term goals, I don’t want to disclose too much at this time. But I will give a hint of the direction that we are currently heading towards.

Just think… Prometheus.

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About the Author

Technology in general makes João Antunes tick, but the specific ways it has created and changed the landscape in IT, gaming and computers ignited curiosity that’s turned into a passion for him. As the son of a journalist writing about how these industries have emerged and evolved, he has an incredible perspective when it comes to understanding the kind of disruption new technologies can create in a given space. He’s committed to showcasing what that disruption will mean for professionals as they work to utilize brand new pieces of hardware, software, systems and processes.

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