Taking flight: Businesses using drones to improve operations
Taking flight: Businesses using drones to improve operations
JOHN REID BLACKWELL
Aug. 05, 2017
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — With a buzzing sound like a swarm of bees, a flying device resembling a miniature helicopter lifted off from the ground at Luck Stone Corp.'s Boscobel quarry one day this spring.
Piloted by Eric Warinner, an engineering technician at Luck Stone, the device — small enough to be held in a man's arms — hovered above the company's crushed stone operation, then zoomed like a hummingbird around a massive pile of crushed stone and the rail cars at the Goochland County quarry.
The purpose was to get the device's cameras to spots where it can be difficult for a person to go, such as the top of a towering conveyor machine that moves crushed stone near the quarry.
"We can put our eyes on anything we need to put our eyes on," Warinner said.
Most people would call the device a drone. "It is a popular term," said John Blackmore, a surveying and mapping supervisor for Luck Stone.
But it's not the word he prefers to use.
Instead, Warinner and Blackmore, who manage the company's drone program, prefer the more technical term — unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV — when discussing the flying tools they deploy to gather all sorts of data from Luck Stone's quarrying operations.
The Goochland-based company then analyzes that information for planning and to bring greater efficiency to its business.
The company, a major producer of stone, sand and gravel products for construction and other industries, has been using UAVs for about three years to do a variety of jobs at its quarries and distribution centers in Virginia and North Carolina.
"To us, this is a tool and a way we are doing our job better," Blackmore said. "It has really changed our business to have this technology."
For Warinner and Blackmore, an even better way to refer to the technology is UAS, for unmanned aerial system, because the aerial vehicles themselves are only part of the technology. It also includes the tools for programming the aerial devices and organizing, analyzing and sharing the data they collect. "It is a system of aircraft, and software with very complex math computations, that makes this very useful for us," Blackmore said.
Luck Stone's use of UAVs is one example of how drones, often thought of primarily as military tools or novelties for hobbyists, can be used in a commercial setting to improve business outcomes.
Dominion Energy, Virginia's largest utility, is another example. The company has been using drones since 2013, mainly for transmission line inspections in hard-to-reach places such as water crossings.
"We typically do a lot of these inspections with helicopters," said Steve Eisenrauch, the company's manager for transmission lines and forestry, who leads its UAV program. "We have been able to offset some of that with drones. When we do that, there is a much smaller environmental footprint to be able to use a drone instead of a helicopter. There is an added level of safety."
Since 2015, the company has used UAVs to inspect nearly 5,000 transmission line structures, he said. To conduct its drone program, Dominion has partnered with Hazon Solutions, a Virginia Beach-based provider of small UAV inspection service operations.
At least for now, there remain some limitations to the commercial operation of drones imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Those include restrictions on flying the devices beyond the operator's line of sight and restrictions on nighttime use.
David A. Culler, Hazon Solutions' co-founder and CEO, said he believes that as the technology develops and safety concerns are addressed, those and other restrictions will be eased and UAVs can be put to use in a wider range of industries.
The FAA does not provide state-level information on how many commercial operations are using drones, a spokeswoman for the agency said.
In April, Luck Stone took another step to develop its use of aerial systems. It announced a partnership with Airware, a California-based company that develops software for businesses to digitize and analyze aerial data collected from UAVs.
Luck Stone is now using UAVs to create detailed, 3-D maps of its quarrying operations and to keep track of its product stockpiles.
The UAVs capture hundreds of images from different vantage points around a quarry, then computer software stitches the images together to create a 3-D map. Airware's technology enables the company to analyze the data and share it among managers.
"They have a lot of analytic capabilities in their software," Blackmore said of Airware, and the company has customized it specifically for Luck Stone's quarrying operations.
Aerial mapping of quarry operations previously was far more labor-intensive.
"Before, we were actually flying an airplane — a manned aircraft — over our locations," Warinner said.
The aircraft would take numerous pictures that the company could use to calculate inventories of crushed stone, or to monitor quarries.
"Now, we are just arriving on scene, putting a UAV in the air, and taking care of it there," he said.
Warinner and Blackmore regularly travel to Luck Stone's 22 quarries and distribution operations and fly the UAVs.
Besides 3-D mapping, the devices can be used to inspect equipment, as well as to check whether there is any undesirable foreign matter in the stone material that is loaded onto rail cars at the company's sites.
"We want to make sure that before we put our product in the rail cars, that there is not tree limbs or dirt, or some other contaminant," Blackmore said. A bird's-eye view is useful for that.
The company has invested in several UAVs, including a small, fixed-wing device that flies like an airplane, rather than a helicopter. All the devices are FAA registered and have tail numbers, as the federal government requires for commercial use. Warinner and Blackmore are also licensed UAV pilots.
When flying the UAVs, they follow a list of safety protocols. For instance, "if we are flying for mapping purposes, then 400 feet is our max," Blackmore said.
Warinner is an Army veteran who was working at Luck Stone's Boscobel quarry when he first took up drone-flying as a hobby, then realized its potential use in the company's operations. Blackmore has training in engineering, geography, surveying and GIS mapping.
"The biggest driver for UAVs for (Luck Stone) is that an operation like ours is changing so fast, it is really beneficial to have frequently updated imagery," Blackmore said. "We can get imagery through the state of Virginia or Google maps and other places, but it might be a few years old, and that is not good enough."
"We can go out now and fly a UAV and get the imagery on the same day, and it is as near as you can get to real time," he said.
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com