The Trimble UX5 drone ready for launch at North American Coal’s Falkirk mine in North Dakota. The unit has already successfully completed more than 65 successful flights for the company.
North American Coal’s Falkirk surface complex, located about 50 miles north of Bismarck, North Dakota, recently earned itself a rather trailblazing distinction: it became the first surface coal mine in the United States to receive an exemption from federal authorities to operate a survey drone.
The operation, which had been seeking new technology to complete its surveying and monitoring in a safer and more efficient manner, first began its research into the potential for drone use in mid-2012, shortly after national airspace regulations were enacted for drone use, and the fixed-wing Trimble UX5 took off on its first flight in October 2015. As of March 2016, 65 flights had been completed.
The project from idea to takeoff was headed up by Falkirk Mining’s planning group engineering manager, Steve Burke, Greg Obrigewitch, professional land surveyor, and partner Adam Walsvik, a Falkirk mine land surveyor, who went through the needed steps to become a certified pilot. Burke and Obrigewitch recently outlined their process from 2012 through today, why they selected the Trimble UX5 model and where their work is heading as they push to save Falkirk even more money and time while collecting the most accurate information possible.
Why a Drone?
North American Coal’s and Falkirk’s staffs have a mutual mission to find ways to use new technology for various operational functions that can help crews work safer and more efficiently while also providing cost savings for the mine. The idea to implement a drone was an ideal fit with those criteria.
“I came across an article in a surveying magazine in which aerial topography work was being accomplished with a small hot air balloon and attached camera,” Obrigewitch said. “The hot air balloon was tethered behind a pickup and would drive slowly while aerial images were taken. This article sparked my interest on aerial photography without the aid of an actual airplane and/or contracted aerial services.”
Primarily due to the leniency of regulations in other countries versus the United States, he said, commercial drone technology for topography was initially implemented internationally; government drone operations with approved Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Certificates of Waiver was allowed in the U.S. national airspace before commercial drone use was allowed. It was a landmark set of outlines, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which provided the framework that would permit integration of commercial drone use with the national airspace system.
Both noted that the thought process behind the idea to integrate a drone wasn’t purely financial. Safety of all of its workers was paramount, with less wear and tear on both people and equipment.
“The Falkirk mine also considered the possibilities of increased speed and efficiencies that could reduce project cost. The UAS accomplishes the safety goal by limiting the time the surveyors have to spend in the field around the challenging mining landscapes and large equipment,” adding that the drone’s aerial capabilities reduces that physical wear.
“The reason for pursuing this was our drive for continuous improvement or simply to do things better,” Burke added. “The justification was based on tangible cost savings, but the real impetus was more around intangibles, like better information for better decisions gathered in a safe and timely manner. This is one more tool in the tool kit, and a very powerful one at that.”
Selecting the Trimble UX5
Many unfamiliar with drone technology may think they’re all the same, that a casual drone for backyard flying is just the same as a professional unit with extended options. Not true. In the commercial space alone, there are plenty of options with countless capabilities, and many models — such as those in the class of the drone selected by Falkirk — can mean an investment of tens of thousands of dollars.
The mine was looking at a specific set of factors in its search for the right drone: flight time, accuracy, support, training, cost and, of course, application. The ideal addition would perform full automated aerial scanning of the operation’s ponds and other areas via instructions from a ground control station, with the result being raw images and data files the complex could use quickly and easily.
“The Falkirk mine evaluated the fixed wing drone, as these typically fly faster and have a longer battery life than a rotor blade UAS,” Obrigewitch said, noting that the fixed-wing design would allow for a larger area flown (measured in acres) as well as a higher density of collected data for the site’s large topography areas.
The other consideration, he said, was entirely tied to safety — that is, a desire to keep employees out of harm’s way of the rotating propeller.
The UX5’s design launches it from the ground using a bungee cord attached to the launcher, with the electric motor starting and the propeller kicking on only after a certain air speed is attained following launch.
“This particular drone design minimizes an accidental human contact with the moving propeller during preflight and actual flight operations,” he said. “When this drone is landing, the propeller stops and the unit belly lands for a safe drone retrieval and return to the storage case.”
In addition to the safety factor and its flight time, Falkirk selected the Trimble UX5 because of the product’s reputation and the integrity of the manufacturer.
“The main time savings and cost benefit with the drone is on larger areas,” Obrigewitch said of another benefit, the speed possibilities and fight time flexibility. After all, the drone has a complex job to do once it is in the air.
“From the drone flights, aerial photography is taken that will produce deliverables of an orthorectified image, point cloud and 3-D surface module,” he explained. “The surface modeling is used to calculate quantities [and] the imagery is used for planning purposes and mapping that allows you to zoom in on an area and get details down to 1- or 2-in. resolution. This type of resolution is great for planning with the high detail.
The additional time and money savings for Falkirk magnifies tremendously in comparison when the unit flies in a larger area versus a smaller tract, as the detail and data points achieved by the flight would be impossible to obtain via GPS survey on foot or by vehicle.
“I would estimate the UAS survey is at least three times cheaper than conventional, and on larger-scale projects, five to 10 times faster,” he said.
Currently, the drone is somewhat of a mechanical jack-of-all-trades for Falkirk, with its images being utilized to create a digital terrain module for contour creation and volumetric calculations with as-built surveys, water management planning, coal stockpile volumes, post-mining topography cut-fill balances and planning, equipment GPS grading files, contours for regulatory submittals, contours for mine planning, and other vital planning needs.
With a resulting image that is very high quality, the mine’s team can provide clear details for discussion group meetings, planning meetings, as ACAD background maps and also to share information internally at the mining complex.
In the future, the two said that Falkirk is investigating a rotor blade drone, which could potentially be used to inspect and collect imagery for structures and machinery, including the mine’s two Marion draglines.
Integration and Challenges
On paper, it may appear that the process from initial idea to actually putting the Trimble UX5 into the air was long and laborious. While there were some challenges in the process, and many steps that had to be taken, Falkirk has set a technological benchmark that other operations may want to follow in the future — and hopefully benefit from both the obstacles and opportunities the North American Coal mine encountered along the way.
Once the mine decided that it would be incorporating a fixed-wing drone into its fleet, and once the FAA’s outlines on drone regulations were in place, Falkirk’s work could begin. In March 2013, the unit and its related costs were added to the mine’s severed coal budget, and the two worked from April 2013 to the fall of 2014 to review the new FAA regulations and how to submit their COA application as well as a 333 Exemption to the administration to allow them to operate with compliance in national airspace.
From that fall through the following summer, fixed-wing demos were evaluated, bringing them to the Trimble UX5, which was purchased in September 2015. After training, Falkirk staff developed a standard operating procedure (SOP) for operations, and the needed sports pilot license was obtained.
Both Burke and Obrigewitch said the operation learned much from the process that it can share with others who are interested in pursuing this technology. For example, according to the pair, it may be significantly helpful to keep spare parts for replacements as needed, especially for wear parts.
“I would recommend contacting current users to get insight from what you can expect from a drone for deliverables on a real-world project,” Obrigewitch said. “With the many different kinds of drones out there, evaluate what scale of project you will work on, type of deliverables wanted, and what type of accuracy and image quality you wish to attain.”
Additionally, with ever-changing technology, training is vital; ensure that the training received is from the OEM and is on the exact drone you intend to use. Training on the software to be used for data set collection is also important.
“Train your UAS staff to understand current UAS FAA rules and regulations [and] develop a standard operating policy for you company,” he said. “This will ensure that the field crews operate the drone in a similar, consistent and safe manner.”
A complete SOP should contain current FAA rules and an outline of safety procedures and prepost flight operations. All staff should be trained to possess a strong safety attitude, attention to detail and a professional attitude while operating the drone in the national airspace.
“The very large UAS files add challenges to dataset file size and management,” Obrigewitch added. “Get a high-speed, top-end computer with large data storage capabilities. One of the Falkirk mine UAS flights, which covered 400 aces, generated 35 GB of data to store and took 10 hours to process in the office.”
In terms of regular maintenance, preventative or otherwise, Falkirk has developed a plan for that as well; thus far, that plan has been working well.
As the two noted for others, visual inspections of the drone both preflight and post-flight for damage or other issues can help keep the unit ready for the next flight as well as for in-flight problems.
“Follow the maintenance plan as outlined in the manufacturer’s guidelines,” Obrigewitch said. “The manufacturer has done a great job [here] in support with the actual drone flight training and questions on office processing of the drone data.”
There has been nothing but positive feedback on the project itself as well as the results it has helped realize for the mine.
“Innovation has been a part of our culture here at the Falkirk mine for a long time,” he said. “From being the first mine in the country to submit a fully electronic permit for mining to being one of the first mines to develop and incorporate machine guidance systems, we take the opportunities to add efficiencies, lower costs and improve safety seriously.”
Added Obrigewitch, “The saying that is really applicable to the technology is ‘The sky is the limit.’ As the FAA approves new rules and eventually makes it less onerous by regulation to operate drones in national airspace, this technology will have the same impact for mapping as GPS did over prior conventional surveying methods.”
Because the drone market is improving at a rapid pace, there will be more applications for this technology going forward. That will certainly open the doors for additional capabilities and also to share drones’ very detailed, precise data on a similarly ever-changing multimedia platform.
Getting FAA Approval for Drone Use
Should another operator want to add a drone to their own planning fleet, Obrigewitch and Burke stressed that there are several steps to getting proper approvals, and plenty of time should be allotted to obtain everything needed before the drone takes its first flight.
- Make a decision on the particular drone or drones you wish to purchase. They will need to be identified in the 333 Exemption and COA paperwork submitted to FAA. Once the drone is purchased, begin the paper-based registration for a commercial drone (as of mid-2016, the FAA has proposed to have an online commercial registration in place). Contact the FAA Aircraft Registration Branch or local Flight Standards District Office for the paper Form 8050-1. You will need the 8050-1 form mailed, as it is not online, and you can only use the FAA form that they will provide to you. You may wish to have two Form 8050-1s sent just in case of a mistake. The information request areas are small, and the FAA will only accept their 8050-1 forms.
- Form 8050-2, “Aircraft Bill of Sale,” and 8050-88, “Affidavit of Ownership,” are both required for this process. Both can be downloaded and printed from the FAA website. These forms require company information along with a legal name of the drone manufacture, model name, serial number from purchased drone, class (airplane, rotorcraft, glider, etc.), the number of engines and type, maximum takeoff weight (which includes all items on board) and category (operate on land, sea or both).
- The Falkirk mine researched the FAA rules and regulation information and wrote the 333 Exemption in December 2014. A great source on what is required by the FAA on the 333 Exemption is found under the FAA website “Guidelines for Submitting a Petition of Exemption.”
- Next, submit the 333 Exemption to the FAA online at regulation.gov. From the home page, select the Search tab and type in shell docket number “FAA-2007-0001.” Then select “Instructions on Filing a Submission to FAA” for applications, petitions, exemptions and any other. After it opens, select “Comment Now” and type in the submitter’s name, mailing address and contact information. Attach the 333 Exemption and submit. Falkirk mine submitted their 333 Exemption on January 2, 2015, and received approval from the FAA on April 16, 2015. The approved 333 Exemption from the FAA included a blanket certificate of operation (COA), which allowed a drone operating flight altitude of 200 ft above ground level (AGL) only, which was different than the approved 333 Exemption that had stated a 400-ft AGL drone operation.
- In order to take advantage of the 400-ft AGL altitude shown in the approved 333 Exemption, an additional amended COA was submitted to the FAA by Falkirk. To submit an amendment to the COA, there is an online portal under the FAA website called “UAS COA Online System.” This COA submittal needs the current approved exemption number and docket number and latitude/longitude of the drone flight areas. Additionally, providing aircraft type, model name, aircraft registration number (received after filling out FAA form 8050-1) will be required, along with climb/descent, turn rates, approach and cruise speeds, gross takeoff weight, launch/recovery type, amended altitude request, description of operation and how the drones fail safes react for a lost link or lost communications issue. The approval time on this was very quick for Falkirk, Burke said, with an approval from the FAA in five days. As of March 29, 2016, the FAA raised the “blanket” COA altitude to a 400-ft AGL, so this step would not be necessary if you maintain the 400-ft AGL or less during drone flights.
While Obrigewitch said the mine had no issues or problems with any regulatory bodies along the way, there are a few things other operations should keep in mind:
- Not accurate when reading water
- Doesn’t do well in vegetation
- File sizes are huge
- Great planning tool
- Pictures can be valuable
- Hard to get the drone stuck