Demand grows in N.W.T. for drone-led site surveys

Drones are helping save time and money when it comes to surveying remote mining sites and other infrastructure in Canada's North, and at least one business in the N.W.T. says demand for the technology is growing.

Diavik Diamond Mine used new technology to survey latest expansion project

Colin Charlton, of Ollerhead & Associates, holds up his company's fixed-wing drone. Charlton says demand for surveys from the drone has gone up five-fold since the company introduced the fixed-wing UAV three years ago. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Drones are helping save time and money when it comes to surveying remote mining sites and other infrastructure in Canada's North, and at least one business in the N.W.T. says demand for the technology is growing.

Canada's second diamond mine, Diavik, put two drones to work about a year and a half ago for its latest expansion project.

Every two weeks, the drones fly high above the site, measuring the volume of piles of crushed rock — about three million tonnes' worth — that's being use to build a massive dike to access Diavik's fourth kimberlite pipe.

The new technology means that a job that once took two surveyors several days to complete on foot can now be completed in about 45 minutes.

"You've got moving equipment, dozers and trucks. You don't want people on foot in the mix there," said Gord Stephenson, the engineering superintendent for the new pipe.

"We've used it in inspections in open pits. We can no longer see the floor so we have been able to provide regular updates and imagery to the underground mine to help them plan some of their work. I think we're just tapping into the potential applications here."

Colin Charlton, of Ollerhead & Associates, which produces surveys and aerial photography throughout the territory for the construction, mining and transportation sectors, says traditional methods of aerial surveying may take up to six months.

With drones, "We can turn a product around in less than a week," he said.

Since the company introduced the fixed wing UAV three years ago, Charlton says it's gone from being used for 10 flights annually to upwards of 50 each year.

The company holds a special flight operating certificate from Transport Canada, allowing it to operate drones above airports and beyond in the N.W.T.

A sample map of the image provided by Ollerhead & Associates' fixed-wing UAV. The drone produces hundreds of images - represented in the image as green dots - which can then be connected to provide high-definition site surveys. (submitted by Ollerhead & Associates)

'I believe we are at a turning point'

Made of mostly Styrofoam, the fixed wing drone is equipped with a high resolution camera, GPS and radar technology.

During a 45-minute survey flight, the unmanned aerial vehicle soars above the ground in a grid formation, snapping hundreds of images. When linked together, the images can be used to create static maps and 3D models that are rich in data.

"When I say we acquire mass amounts of information, we're mapping the large track of land at two to three centimetre intervals," said Charlton. "Gathering everything from trees, light poles, tracking in the ground. It's very high resolution."

That information can then be mined repeatedly, without necessitating a return to the site.

Charlton says that due to the demand, expanding the fleet is a significant possibility.

"I believe we are at a turning point," he said. "I could see us jumping from one, to two, to three easily."


Kate Kyle is a reporter for CBC North based in Yellowknife. Find her on Twitter @_kate_kyle


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