New Vision and Drone Autonomy Technology Advances State-of-the-art in Mapping

By Rick Rys

Summary

Drone inspection and mapping technology has expanded rapidly in the past decade with the advancement of lightweight Drone Autonomy Technologybatteries, drone flight controls, autonomous navigation, and high resolution digital cameras. Inspection applications have grown rapidly in agriculture, oil & gas, building and bridge construction, electric utility vegetation management, fire and rescue, surveying, and many other inspection tasks. GPS guided drones using  digital cameras have created new service markets for many inspection and surveying tasks that were impossible to accomplish with other methods.

Empowering drones with autonomous navigation has greatly improved the ability to collect useful data and reduce the need for, and costs associated with, skilled pilots. Most of us take GPS for granted today when traveling by car or even hiking in the mountains. GPS is an integral part of many drone surveying and inspection activities, but there are some environments like mines, warehouses, tanks, underneath bridges and other covered spaces where GPS is not available or reliable. To address this challenge, Emesent has developed proprietary LiDAR-based drone autonomy technology that further expands the ability to survey and inspect previously inaccessible spaces or assets.

A traditional drone survey refers to the use of a drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), to capture aerial data with downward-facing sensors, such as RGB or multispectral cameras, and LiDAR payloads. During a drone survey with an RGB camera, the ground is photographed several times from different angles, and each image is tagged with Drone Autonomy Technologycoordinates. Using GPS and photometric techniques, 2D and 3D maps can be created.

The Emesent Hovermap solution is LiDAR based and does not require GPS. Instead, it uses a powerful Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) algorithm to estimate the drone’s position and orientation from the LiDAR data itself and create high-detail, accurate 3D point clouds. Hovermap not only provides this LiDAR mapping capability, it also provides advanced autonomy capabilities. It allows the drone to fly autonomously, self-navigating around obstacles even in GPS-denied environments and beyond line-of-sight and communication range. 

This allows Hovermap to be used for mapping in underground mines, underneath bridges or platforms, tanks, and other covered spaces - all from a diverse range of drone platforms. Its plug-and-play design means it can also be easily removed from the drone and mounted to a ground robot or used for walking scans.

New Measurement Technology Adds Data that Cannot Be Gathered from a Camera

When you want to control a process, the basic idea is to measure and regulate key variables. When new technology allows you to measure important variables, there is an opportunity to improve the control of that process. With accurate 3D point clouds from the new high precision lightweight LiDAR, models can be produced to provide great insights into both surface and subsurface mining, structures like industrial processes, warehouses, buildings, bridges, tunnels, and subways.

Hovermap’s rotating LiDAR provides an omni-directional field of view, ensuring 3D data is collected in all directions. 3D data is collected consistently while reducing shadows. These maps are useful for review of erosion, tree measurements, and stockpile volumes. The Hovermap acquired data can be combined with data from additional sensors, such as cameras or hyperspectral imaging for further data analytics.

One of the possibilities for autonomy is for drones to fly below the forest canopy for accurate growth assessment. This is useful to cover large areas of new plantings without trudging miles or fear of GPS interruptions.

Partnership with Major Mine Planning Software Providers

Emesent’s ambition to help mining customers boost productivity and improve outputs has led to partnerships with major Drone Autonomy Technologymine planning software vendors Deswik, Maptek, and Datamine.

These alliances make it easier for mining companies to adopt new data capture technology by leveraging their existing surveying capability. Through seamless import of Hovermap scans into these platforms, users are then able to use the data for geotechnical analysis and condition monitoring, as-built surveys, volume reporting and design updates. Data from previously inaccessible areas is bringing new insights and an additional level of detail to mine operations. Partnering with key technology providers in the vanguard is helping Emesent move closer towards their vision of a digitally driven mining ecosystem.

Keeping Workers Away from Danger

Underground mines contain large open voids that are critical to the efficient and safe operation of the mine. These unsupported voids are a source of ground falls that can endanger personnel, underground infrastructure, and equipment. The traditional method of scanning an open void is for a surveyor to operate a boom-mounted LiDAR sensor near the edge of the void, which is time-consuming (hours), produces poor quality, shadowed, incomplete scans, and endangers personnel. Hovermap has changed the way underground mines capture data to digitize their underground environment in improving personnel safety and keeping workers away from danger while scanning.

Emesent is raising the bar for drone autonomy with their autonomous capability for Hovermap; enabling venturing into previously inaccessible areas to capture data and deliver valuable insights.

Hovermap pilots can fly an entire mission, from take-off to landing, using only a tablet. Data is processed on-board in real-time to stream a 3D map back to the operator. Tapping on the map will set smart waypoints, and Hovermap takes care of the rest, navigating to the waypoints while avoiding obstacles and completing the mission autonomously.

Key Takeaways:

  • Flying a mission using Hovermap’s autonomous capability doesn’t require any specialist drone pilot skills and can be done by one person, thereby reducing costs.
  • Hovermap can fly beyond line-of-sight and communication range in the dark and capture critical data to assess the stability of geological features and improve decision-making in mine safety and design.
  • Emesent’s partnership with key mining software vendors allows tight integration of Hovermap’s data with mine planning for open pit and underground mines. This combination is transformational for a digitally-driven mining ecosystem.
  • The ability to identify objects based on shape in real time from LiDAR point cloud data opens up a world of new possibilities for inspection.
  • Autonomous drone operations open up new possibilities for inspection applications in a number of asset-intensive industries as it reduces costs associated with expensive, skilled pilots.
Drone Autonomy Technology

Conclusion

The world has witnessed the creation of whole new market segments as drones coupled with a variety of sensors have fed a seemingly insatiable demand for fast, easy access to detailed asset information. Drones have provided stunning photography and videos of natural and man-made structures as well as actionable data that can improve the operation of agriculture, building and bridge construction, offshore platforms, pipelines, transmission lines, disaster response, and many other industries.

Drone technology continues to improve the capture of useful data with the advancement of LiDAR. The development of Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) based autonomy now provides the ability to operate in GPS-denied environments using lightweight precision LiDAR carried by a drone. This autonomous capability means that LiDAR can operate in previously unmapped dark, confined spaces like mines with minimal human involvement. This ability can improve mine operations and gather valuable data without putting humans into hostile environments or work on dangerous tasks.

ARC follows the drone markets for asset inspection and delivery. This new inspection technology is another example of how drones can provide useful data that improves the operation of industrial activities by expanding data collection and analysis into GPS-denied spaces.

 

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Keywords: LiDAR, Autonomy, Drones, Hovermap, Drone Inspection, Robotic Inspection, Surveying, ARC Advisory Group.

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