Eyes in the sky

Drone technology helps energy and materials firms squeeze more profits from resources

Dan Headrick
30 October 2019

4 min read

Mining, power generation and chemical companies – not renowned as early technology adopters – are deploying drone technology at an accelerating pace. Drones are proven to save companies time and money, improve safety and, most importantly, collect data that can be analyzed for operational improvements.

In 2018, in what has been described as the largest commercial drone purchase ever, Komatsu Smart Construction ordered a fleet of 1,000 high-precision drones equipped with machine vision technology supplied by San Francisco-based Skycatch.

Launched in 2015 to alleviate Japan’s severe shortage of skilled construction workers, Komatsu Smart Construction is a drone-assisted, automated equipment service under Komatsu, a Japanese multinational corporation that manufactures heavy equipment used in construction, mining and other industrial applications.

The technology, integrated into drones built by China’s SZ DJI Technology Company, will be used at Komatsu’s construction sites, producing maps accurate to mere centimeters, monitoring onsite stockpiles of construction materials and, one day soon, controlling the robot construction vehicles Komatsu is developing.

The massive order illustrates how far drone technology has come. As a result, many industries that traditionally have been slow to adopt new technologies are now embracing drones, using them to improve safety, use equipment more cost-effectively and collect real-time data that can be analyzed to improve productivity.

Mining companies are among those taking the plunge, adding drones, automated vehicles, Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors to their operations. Those purchases are contributing to growth in the worldwide mining equipment market, which Zion Market Research projects will climb from US$70 billion (62.5 billion euros) in 2017 to US$98.5 billion (88 billion euros) by 2024.

“There was some early reservation,” said Patrick Stuart, product director of Skycatch. “But I’ve seen the mining industry come a long way, from not doing too much to innovating faster than some of the other verticals. It’s really exploding in mining.”


Energy and mining companies work in harsh, dangerous environments. Drones fitted with high-precision cameras, thermal imaging, integrated imaging sensors and enhanced data capture capability can hover inside smokestacks to look for cracks and locate corrosion inside refinery production units. In mining, drones explore excavated shafts to ensure their integrity before workers are sent in. Above ground, drones map slope and elevation and report on equipment and stockpile management.

“The heavy processing industry has been looking at drones for quite a long time,” said Marc Gandillon, marketing head for Flyability, a Swiss drone manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that operate in confined, dangerous and inaccessible spaces. Recently, however, many companies have decided to deploy drones at a large scale. “Why now? Because the technology is mature enough so that it really meets the needs of these companies,” Gandillon said.

Dow Chemical Company, for example, began testing drones in 2014 at its manufacturing facility in Freeport, Texas. Dow uses drones to inspect tanks and pipelines, a process that used to take days and often involved human exposure to dangerous chemicals. With drones, the same work takes hours and eliminates the risk of exposure.

“We kind of fumbled through the first couple of years,” said Andy Lewis, global improvement leader at Dow. “But the level of use picked up as we explored different technologies to reduce safety risk. With drones it’s a win-win.

We can reduce the amount of [chemical] exposure to people and do jobs quicker and more productively. We saw so much advantage that now we use drones in all the company’s facilities across the globe. Even if productivity isn’t the issue, the safety benefits are worth it.”


While drones and their data-gathering payloads are becoming increasingly sophisticated, improved ease of use is another key adoption driver.

“They used to be hard to use,” Gandillon said. “The rules used to be messy. Now the regulatory aspects are built into the drones. The data quality is so much better. We’ve got the right sensors, the right data-capture systems. Drones are now more suited for industries’ needs. There has been a sort of conjunction of aerial platforms and heavy industry; they’re starting to speak the same language.”

Those improvements help to explain why drones now represent one of the leading technologies transforming the mining industry, said Joe Carr, director of mining innovation at London-based satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat.

Teck Resources Limited (Teck) uses Skycatch ruggedized UAVs at its Line Creek steelmaking coal operation in the Elk Valley, British Columbia, Canada, where high winds and drastic temperature changes demand stable performance to rapidly collect and process their data capture with a precise output to view the progression of the site in near real-time. (Image © Skycatch)

“These drones not only scan the mines from perspectives that are dangerous and near-inaccessible to humans; they also instantaneously communicate any information they pick up,” Carr observed in the industry publication Mining Technology. “This makes for a more rapid and detailed analysis of the mine slopes without having to deploy highly skilled geologists or geotechnical engineers into an inherently hazardous environment or affecting production by closing haul roads.”


Industry research analyst Colin Snow, CEO of Redwood City, California-based Skylogic Research, is not convinced, however. Much of the early growth of the fledgling drone industry, he said, has been fueled by hype. Still, he acknowledges that it is becoming easier for companies to incorporate drones into their operations.

“It’s gotten better,” Snow said. “Payload and images are getting much more resolute, easier to use. [There is] more automation in mission-planning and the actual processing. So, it’s easier.”

One of the biggest trends Snow anticipates in the next few years may not sound very exciting, but could have major implications for corporate balance sheets: the ability to integrate drone data into corporate workflows for documentation, predictive maintenance, enterprise asset management, tracking and GIS data integration.

“In the end, you need a report that supports decision making,” Flyability’s Gandillon said. “The only thing that matters is the data.” ◆

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