Reach for the sky: Airware and the future of drones in the mining industry
The future of mining is being shaped by the technology of today. technological innovation is transforming the mining industry by the day largely through operating technology such as heavy machinery and automation. But what of the role of data analytics and mine site analysis?
Step forward Airware. Airware is a company that has been providing Fortune 500 companies with complete enterprise drone solutions and in September last year, the company acquired Redbird, the France bases data analytics platform for mining, aggregates and construction industries.
For founder and CEO of Airware Jonathan Downey, it was only a matter of time before drone data analytics technology took hold of the mining industry.
“Construction and excavation sites, such as mines as quarries, must be managed and operated digitally in order to compete in today’s markets,” he says.
“Commercial drone technology like Airware brings mining operations into the digital world all the while offering faster, cheaper and higher-quality data analytics,”
In the current mining industry, one that is faced with cost reductions and, according to a McKinsey report in June 2016, 28 percent less productive than a decade ago, Airware and the acquisition of Redbird is a breath of fresh air and offers optimism for the future of the industry.
Airware was founded by Jonathan following a combination of his passion for aviation, through his father teaching him to fly in his childhood, and engineering and developing electronics and software solutions through high school and college.
Downey also worked as a commercial air pilot for some time and was involved directly with Boeing on the development of a 6,000 lb fully autonomous world record breaking helicopter. Following his time as a pilot, Jonathan founded Airware after seeing a shift in the focus of technology solutions in the industry.
“I saw technology was becoming available in a smaller form factor and at a price point where it could address commercial flight applications through drones,” he says.
“But I also saw an industry that was focused on the drones themselves and not on the enterprise software required to make the data collected by these drones actually actionable by large enterprises,”
Airware provides exactly that – enterprise solutions in which large enterprises can utilise the data collected through drones. The company has worked in a number of sectors across Europe and America, but it has only been recently that Downey has decided to take Airware into the mining industry
“We’ve had our eye on the mining industry for some time but only from a far. Through Redbird we have finally entered that space and acquired all the visualisation and data analytic applications and platforms associated with that vertical,”
With commercially flying drones comes the question of regulation and airspace and whether we are going to see the skies full of drones flying around like a scene ripped out of classic science fiction. The Federal Aviation Administration, an operation mode of the U.S Department of Transportation, essentially governs the skies. For a company like Airware, establishing a key working relationship with the FAA has been crucial in the growth of the company, after all, if Airware plans on working with customers to commercially fly drones then it needs to adhere to governmental regulations.
This is something that Downey has been all too aware of.
“Airware was one of the first companies to partner with the FAA and work in a collaborative fashion, which has helped us grow and better serve our customers on an immeasurable scale,” he says.
The partnership and collaborative nature of work with the FAA has in fact been so instrumental in the future of commercial drone use that Airware is featured numerous times in the latest iteration of the FAA regulations on commercial drone use.
So how does Airware fit into the mining industry? As noted, Airware develops complete drone solutions that will help fortune 500 companies solve business problems. Downey indicates that this is most typically operational cost savings, enhancing of worker safety and the improvement of decision making.
“The current mining industry is facing lower productivity levels than the same time a year ago, productivity is a big issue in the industry,” says Downey.
“Companies want to achieve more with the same number of machines that they have today, and that’s where Airware comes in,” he says.
Airware works closely with clients to understand all elements of the operation, from material to production, excavation, blasting, transporting and inventory management. The company ties together all the information from machines, materials and all other sources of information from the mine site to allow companies to identify where improvements can be made.
With any technological innovation that stands to change the ways of working of an industry there comes with it a sense of risk and even fear of adoption. Airware is no stranger to that. The company is essentially changing the way mining companies can analyse mine site data, efficiency, health and safety of workers and productivity. Larger mining organisations will have been using established methods of doing so for years but Downey believes that it was simply a matter of if and not when drones will become the norm across the industry.
“The industry is convinced that commercial drones are an inevitable part of their future, or even their present,” he says.
“In most cases, it’s about when are they going to adopt this new technology and what is the best way to do so,”
Downey has seen that despite this inevitability, there are varying levels of risk averseness in the industry. There have been motivations on both ends of the spectrum, early adopters versus late adopters. In the mining industry, with declining productivity and a more competitive environment some companies have been rapid adopters, while others have been happy to wait and see the success of the technology first and then adopt later.
Part of the way that Airware has been so successful is through having the right likeminded and talented people working for the business to really take the company further and further. Recruiting these people hasn’t been an issue for Downey.
“This is a technology that excites people. We’ve all dreamed as kids of developing robots and flying our own technologies and Airware has been the perfect platform to realise those dreams,”
The mining industry has proved to be one of the more competitive markets in commercial drone technology. Airware entered this industry knowing full well of the various technology players already in the market. What convinced Downey to do so was the company’s understanding of large enterprises and what enterprises expect – a complete solution.
“Airware, via the acquisition of Redbird, is the most complete solution of this vertical,” he says.
As a demonstration of the key role that Airware will play in the industry, Downey and a number of representatives recently attended MINExpo 2016. This represented a great opportunity for the company to meet with existing clients, network with potential clients and learn more about the industry.
One such client was Caterpillar, which has been working with Redbird (now Airware) on drone solutions and has announced plans to extend an already existing agreement with the company.
For Downey, attending events and tradeshows such as this calls back to the very notion of what started Airware in the first place, for it was at an even that Downey first understood and noted the “missing key” for technology was drone solutions in the industry.
Fresh into the mining industry, the only way is up for Airware and Downey is excited for what the future holds.
“It’s an exciting industry, one of constant innovation all of the time. It’s an environment that I am very passionate about, so the ability to combine this with aviation through Airware is an opportunity that I am thrilled to have, to pursue and to really push forward.”
Axora: driving safety, sustainability and efficiency
“Axora was conceived to bring collaboration and industrial digital innovation to the next level,” pledges CEO Ritz Steytler. “We spoke with the heads of innovation and the operations leaders of oil & gas and metals & mining organisations. We understand the intense pressure they face to modernise their operations. We’re focused on offering solutions to support mining companies with the three biggest challenges they face: safety, sustainability and efficiency."
Safety, Sustainability & Efficiency
"We can help with everything from discovering the right solutions to solve specific problems, to evaluating physical innovation and then supporting the end to end process for actually getting that technology to deliver business value," continues Steytler. That’s realised through our support of the procurement cycle and helping companies with the deployment and maintenance of their chosen solutions to ensure they continue to deliver value where it’s needed most.”
Axora hosts over 150 innovative solutions from sector leaders to start-ups, universities, and consultancies. Examples include machine vision technology that identifies mineral ore contaminants three times faster than the human eye, and predictive modelling for oil rigs which uses built-in sensors and AI to maximise production. Axora's proven digital solutions help to reduce wasted investment, avoid duplication and accelerate business growth.
The World Economic Forum estimates digitalisation can create value to the tune of $400bn across the coming decade. However, the emergence of ‘digital mines’ isn’t just about the numbers. Digitalisation can transform mining into a far more sustainable enterprise by mitigating some of the big risks the industry faces. A digital mine can optimise operations, unleashing the power of data to understand and implement changes in the business.
With the right solutions it’s possible to effect radical changes in a process that is understood better. Solutions that have been road-tested across the oil and gas industry can deliver real benefits for mining companies, including early adopters like Glencore, explains Axora’s Mining Innovation Director Joe Carr: “Opex Group are using Machine Learning with an AI algorithm to pull in all the available sensor data to monitor a processing plant. Its solutions analyse output and look across all the pumps and motors to offer exact data on where to tweak them down. It’s cloud-based and can monitor, reduce and control operational emissions, optimise energy use and minimise environmental impact. It’s currently being used in the oil and gas industry and it's been shown to save up to 10% of power, but the driver of it was actually Co2.
“If you're running an oil platform, your power is essentially free because you're pumping it out of the ground. But in a mine the biggest power user, outside of the trucks and shovels, is the process plant. It uses around 21 kilowatt hours per tonne of processing power to run, right? Obviously, that's dependent on the plant, but it's a power-hungry situation. Diesel is not cheap, especially in remote locations. Being able to save five to 10% of your power usage for no issue in terms of production could be a big win for mining.”
Carr highlights there is also the real opportunity to significantly reduce Scope 1, Scope 2 and even into Scope 3 emissions where Opex Group’s solutions could be used in a smelter to go for the “low hanging fruit” and cut Co2 emissions. “It's a win-win all around, and yet it's a technology which the mining industry doesn't use today, but it exists in a parallel industry.”
To further reduce emissions, Axora is offering solutions which are involved in the scheduling and optimisation of haul truck fleets. “If your fleet is idling for even 10 minutes a cycle, that is wasted fuel,” notes Carr. “It just goes into the atmosphere. And very rarely do the drivers turn the trucks off because they don't want to be stopping and starting those big engines. The mine may be in an extreme climate so even something as basic as saving idling can contribute towards a company’s net zero targets.” The Axora platform also features a system to manage shipping and logistics. “Are you moving your material in the most effective way in terms of routing for fuel usage and speed?” asks Carr.
“Being able to program those variables in terms of Co2 tonnage produced offers new capabilities. We’re able to help our customers understand what they want to achieve. Scope 1 emissions might be the easiest to impact with the haul fleet. Scope 2 focuses on the processing plant and the downstream movement. Understanding what a mining company’s customers are using its materials for makes Scope 3 more difficult to impact – for iron ore it would be a steel melt…”
To that end, Axora offers a predictive maintenance system for aluminum smelting which Carr notes can reduce downtime by up to 20%. “Aluminum smelting tends to come from hydro which can be very clean – it’s energy intensive,” he explains. “But the same system could easily be applied to steel or copper processes where you don't want to be turning them on and off. You don't want to be running your autoclave in a gold mine with a varying sulfide input because the heat goes up and down and it messes with your recovery and you're using a lot more power to heat and cool your autoclave.”
The Axora Platform
“Challenge us and we will find it for you,” asserts Steytler when explaining how he envisages the Axora platform developing. “We aim to match a technology provider to a particular business buyer, somebody that has a real problem that needs to get solved. They can then collaborate to deploy that technology successfully.” Steytler is positioning Axora beyond the sales and procurement process. “There’s no such thing as on time and on budget with a digital transformation effort, right? It’s a difficult thing to achieve, we’re not talking about shrink-wrapped software. That’s why partnerships are extremely important and we can help facilitate those to deliver the value required.”
Reacting to Trends
Against the backdrop of record years for many mining companies – with copper and gold production and prices on the rise – what trends are the team at Axora seeing across the industry that will necessitate a response from its multi-solution platform? “Despite the uncertainties of the global pandemic, mining companies have taken a practical approach,” notes Carr. “What we’ve seen during the pandemic is that miners have realised they need to embrace the digitisation journey. The past year has proved to be a gateway with younger guys coming through the system ready for change.”
Carr highlights that with Covid, engineers couldn’t simply fly to West Africa or Chile so the door to digitsation opened. Where has he seen the biggest push? “How do we get the data we want and then what do we do with it?” he counters. “Miners have so much data that it's in Excel sheets, and it's got macros, and it's historically stored on a server somewhere that nobody's looked at for five years since it was sent out. Our clients' demands today are more around how do we do something with that data? Because we know the benefits are there. The sensor data around predictive maintenance and all these things exist, but they're having such a struggle to deal with it and deliver meaningful insights.”
However, Carr concedes it's a cyclical business. “If it comes down to buying another truck or buying a data server, what's going to get more tonnes out of the ground? But with the right data we can see what will actually benefit operations in the long term… That push towards digital has seen what we thought would take the next five years actually happen in one year because remote capabilities and enhancement to operations centres have advanced to meet demand. At Axora, we’re seeing mining companies assess solutions to improve health and safety on their sites by reducing members of the workforce exposed to risk and in harm’s way and keen to discover how they can drive efficiencies to make more tonnes for less. Ultimately, it’s part of our job to make it simple in terms of a value calculation.”
“Axora is here to accelerate digital transformation in the mining industry,” asserts Steytler. “We can simplify that process. And with investment in that transformation expected to reach $6.8trn between 2020 and 2023 as the world economy digitizes, there’s never been a better time to realise the benefits.”