First published in the March 2020 issue of Quarry Management as Fixed-wing Focus
Johnson Poole and Bloomer survey projects have been reduced to hours instead of days or weeks by using the long-range aerial data-collection capabilities of Delair drones
To say Johnson Poole and Bloomer (JPB) have a deep history in the mining industry is more than just a clever pun. The firm can trace its roots back more than 150 years to when it first began serving the British mining industry, and it is considered a pioneer in introducing, and since evolving, applied geology and environmental science as professional disciplines in land management.
The company has built on that legacy and expanded to become one of the UK’s largest multidisciplinary engineering and scientific consultancies, operating in several closely related and complementary areas – geotechnical engineering, environmental engineering, contamination, surveying, and mining and quarrying.
Today, with four offices throughout the UK and a team of 40 employees, JPB offer in-depth specialist skills through their varied engineering, geological, environmental and property disciplines, all helping to address the many issues raised by the redevelopment of land, the development of mines and quarries, the disposal of waste, and the environmental imperatives introduced by such activities.
JPB and their clients have a common interest in the land – in its development, its resources, and in the risks and opportunities that it presents. To this end, the company is also committed to staying at the leading edge of technology to increase efficiency, accuracy and improve the results it delivers to its clients. This led JPB to investigate the benefits of drones as a step forward in their traditional surveying and engineering approaches.
The JPB team had known about the capabilities of drones to more efficiently cover large and difficult-to-access areas of land as well as provide an increasingly sophisticated way to collect and analyze data from the air. However, it was actually safety concerns that first drew them to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
‘Health and safety requirements have changed dramatically over the years in the industries we serve, and site managers are increasingly concerned about people being too close to machinery and active sites,’ said JPB associate director Rich Kenyon. ‘Traditional ground-based survey methods with total station and GPS puts workers in harm’s way around the quarry site. The managers of such sites are rightly concerned, with surveyors walking around the quarry for days on end, especially when there is blasting planned and heavy equipment being moved around.’
Getting a view from the air, therefore, seemed like the logical – and safe – approach, as long the accuracy required to do precise stockpile calculations and site inspections could be maintained. And since the sites JPB are typically inspecting – from large quarries and mining operations to extensive real estate development projects – are spread out over vast and sometimes difficult to access tracts of land, they needed a solution that could allow long-range surveying.
After looking at small, roto-copter-style UAVs, the JPB team realized that allowing long flight missions was an important consideration for them. While the easy take-off and landing characteristics of quadcopters was appealing, they presented limitations from an operational standpoint. The short flying ranges of smaller drones would require tedious and time-consuming battery swaps and often mean re-flying the same area multiple times to generate the complete images required. Durability in rough terrain was also an issue.
The team needed a solution that could fly at the optimal altitude and for the distances required to efficiently gather detailed information on their clients’ operations and assets, particularly for stockpile volume calculations. ‘It’s not unusual for a quarry or mining client to have hundreds of stockpiles to inspect over multiple sites, so we need to cover a lot of ground and be efficient with our resources,’ noted Mr Kenyon.
This necessitated not just long-range capabilities, but also intuitive flight controls, tools and imaging technology, before, during and after the flights, to help surveyors collect and process data that they need to do their jobs.
‘Accuracy of the data from stock surveys is critical to us as this provides useful business insights for our clients. We needed an efficient way to get that information in a non-intrusive way and then be able to produce a meaningful result from the data collected to help our clients run their businesses and make important decisions,’ said Mr Kenyon.
In early 2018, the JPB team were introduced to the Delair UX11 at a trade show when it was initially launched to the market. The fixed-wing drone is an innovative hardware-software platform that provides highly accurate images for survey-grade mapping, with on-board processing capabilities and real-time, long-range control via 3G/4G cellular networks or radio links. The platform’s enhanced centimeter-level precision along with its efficient operational characteristics make it an ideal surveying and mapping tool for companies with the sort of challenges JBP faced.
The drone’s ability to fly long-range missions of up to an hour as well as its advanced workflow-management system were particularly appealing to JPB. The UX11’s lightweight structure is attractive from a portability standpoint as is the bird-like take-off and landing (BTOL) feature of the UX11. This allows deployment of the drone in challenging environments and requires minimal area to launch and land the craft – a key consideration given the harsh landscape and restricted access typical in mine and quarry operations.
Once the decision was taken to bring on board the UX11, JPB were pleasantly surprised at the straightforward adoption process. Benefitting from expert onboarding and support from Delair partners Survey Solutions Scotland, as well as a thorough training provided by Drone Pilot Academy, the team felt confident in deploying the drone for production use.
‘I had had some experience flying drones so that helped, but our team was able to get fully trained within four days and get out into the field to put it to use,’ said Mr Kenyon. ‘It’s a pretty intuitive-to-use model – you go through the steps it provides, do your checks and you’re ready to fly.’
The UX11 delivered the type of operational performance JPB wanted. With the drone, the company’s remote pilots are able to fly at an altitude of 400ft and still achieve an accuracy of 1.7cm. Typical flight times for the team are 40–45mins, which allows coverage of dozens of acres of land. An average flight will allow them to collect up to 2,000 photos and they can fly up to four or five flights per day. This gives them what they need to do precise volumetric analysis of the client’s product.
Once a mission is completed the data can be downloaded and used to develop maps, diagrams and images that are compatible with the modelling and data-management software already in use at JPB, such as Trimble Business Center and LSS from McCarthy Taylor. JPB use the data to develop point-cloud images and orthomosaic photos that detail the surveyed areas.
The adoption of the Delair UX11 met two of JPB’s objectives of using a drone – increased safety while obtaining the information they need and improved efficiency in time and resources required to gather information.
The firm recently completed a stock survey for a client that covered a total flight area of 1.5km2 and resulted in the capture of around 4,200 photographs. The total flying time was less than 2h, which allowed the JPB survey team to complete the job within a day. In the past, this project would have seen the team on site for more than a week, but use of the drone allowed the team to be on site for the minimum time necessary.
The largest project JPB have undertaken covered 3km2, resulting in some 10,500 photographs being captured and the production of a one-billion-point point cloud. When utilizing the UX11 over large areas such as this, the time and cost savings are magnified. The survey team covered the 3km2 in two days. According to Mr Kenyon, such a project would have taken at least two weeks using traditional GPS methods.
‘We can capture a lot more data using the UX11 and once we fly a mission there really is no need to go back out to the site,’ he explained. ‘That translates into significant savings for us and also allows us to be more efficient in how we support our clients.’
He also noted that the Delair UX11’s embedded global shutter camera as well as its PPK (post-processed kinematic) capabilities are key to ensuring greater precision in its data collection. With PPK, GPS data from both on-board and off-board systems can be matched after the mission, providing a higher degree of accuracy of the images collected.
Once the collected data have been processed, which can take a few days depending on the size of the project, JPB are able to provide detailed and accurate deliverables to their clients. The information is invaluable to mine and quarry managers for calculating stock volumes and monitoring quarry development.
JPB have seen a return on their investment in the UX11 both in terms of time and money. Its use has become a staple in the company’s surveying offering, which Mr Kenyon believes sends a strong message to clients who view JPB as being on the leading edge. With the expert support from Delair partners Survey Solutions Scotland combined with more than 200 successful missions under their belt, the company is looking to expand its use.
JPB have also begun experimenting with the delair.ai platform, to explore the benefits of the cloud-based system. They see initial value in the specific stockpile analysis tools available through delair.ai as well as the collaborative approach it allows, including being able to share information with clients.
While the initial projects being performed with the UX11 are focused on mines and quarries, JBP see potential for it in other surveying projects, such as real-estate development, ecological surveys, asset management and other areas.
‘We are in a competitive industry and we need every advantage we can get,’ said Mr Kenyon. ‘Drones give us more capabilities and a more efficient work process, which makes us a more valuable partner to our clients.’
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