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THE DRIFT: Drones making underground inspections safer

Mike Campigotto envisions a day when an autonomous drone can wake up underground, fly a pre-determined route recording the specs of a stope, return to its docking station, and upload the data to a server – all before the mine supervisor has had their morning coffee.

It’s not as far in the future as you might imagine, and Campigotto believes SafeSight Exploration is the company to do it.

“The technology is still on the edge, and companies have to be bold enough to adopt the technology while it's on the edge of the curve,” said Campigotto, founder and president at SafeSight. “You give us three more years and it will dramatically change again.”

Launched in 2016, the North Bay company outfits drones with light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology, along with video and photography capabilities, and deploys them underground to produce a 360-degree scan of drifts or stopes in preparation for obstruction clearance or site planning.

The process is more accurate, generates faster results, and is safer for workers, who would otherwise be sent to conduct those labour-intensvie, sometimes dangerous inspections, Campigotto said. He estimates a company can see a benefit to the bottom line after just one or two flights.

Part of the challenge, he noted, is getting the various technologies – LiDAR, photography, battery life, and drone aviation – to work effectively together.

But with a team specializing in mining engineering, electrical engineering, aviation, geology, robotics and software, SafeSight has been able to quickly advance the technology.

“Whenever we think we've got a solution and we take it into the field to apply it in real life, what we find is the next problem, the next opportunity to innovate to make the solution more seamless, more integratable,” he said.

“So the advantage we have is, solving those problems happens very rapidly because we have five diverse perspectives and five component solutions that, really, when they come together solve the whole problem.”

Today, the company’s drone can tie in to a mine’s existing operational network, so if the mine is Wi-Fi enabled, the drone can be, too.

“We can broadcast information in real time to another element on the network, like a server or somebody’s desktop, whether that’s a video, or just saving a hard copy file that’s like a time stamp of the flight or mission, or data collected,” Campigotto said.

LiDAR technology has evolved to a point where the drone can capture 600,000 data points per second, resulting in millions of data points over a 45-second flight.

But because most analysis software can’t handle the large files produced, SafeSight can only download about 20 per cent of the information captured.

Campigotto argues that’s still more information than could be gleaned by doing the inspection manually, but the company is now looking for a partner that can take those data files and provide a quick turnaround so that “15 minutes later, your planning folks are looking at exact measurements of drifts or stopes or whatever we happened to fly.”

Partnerships with some of the industry’s biggest names – Goldcorp, Vale and Redpath among them – have enabled SafeSight to address real-world concerns and solve pain points for those companies.

That early adoption by mining industry players is exactly the kind of sector buy-in the company needs to keep the technology moving forward, Campigotto said.

SafeSight is now in the process of setting up an assembly line to build an inventory of units, and it’s developed a second, smaller and lighter “scout” drone. 

The company has also launched an instructional program, geared toward training mine workers on the drones’ operation.

Campigotto argues that if underground drone inspections can take flight, it will be a true step-change opportunity for the industry.

“It's not finished by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

“Companies can wait and follow the trends as they're proven, but we do need industry leaders that will join us in the evolution of this technology in the field reaping the benefits from it, but also helping us innovate the technology so that it has huge game-changing operational advantages.”

The Drift magazine, a new publication from Northern Ontario Business, features profiles on the people and companies making important contributions to the Northern Ontario mining service and supply industry.

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