Words By: Ahmed Alnomany - Inkonova
“If there is one thing that we learnt from the months of testing in underground mines, it is that to hit the true potential for drone solutions underground, and given the constricted, dark and GPS-deprived nature, we definitely have to make them autonomous.
Autonomy is a technical requirement dictated by the business requirement of usability and consumerability. That is, to sell, we need to make it easy for anyone with little training, to pop up the screen and controls, and start navigating the drone without the prohibiting level of piloting skill required for such environments.
This ease of operation has been achieved for open-air applications, where light, space and GPS are abundant. But wherever they are not, there lies our current frontier, and it is requiring another level of technology development..”
This is to report back on the technology we at Inkonova started developing back then…
Flashback to Fall 2016: TILT Ranger, the first custom drone solution for laser mapping underground mines, distinguished by the capacity to climb/run/fly using its tilt-rotors, special wheeled design, engineered to resist water, dust, and overall navigate rough terrain underground. Main modes of piloting were either line of sight or BLOS using visual FPV. Since then the Ranger has flown in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Mali, U.K, Peru, Chile and South Africa.
Then, as in the article, presses the need for a special type of autonomous navigation for the subterranean world (hence I coined ‘Batonomous’ — Bat Autonomous) where there is no GPS, light, or any man-made infrastructure, and that was in the cooking.
Now, 16 months later, we are proud to have come a long away on Batonomy, ‘pop-up screen and controls’ quoted above is now reality. Below is a raw non-annotated video of the batonomous capacity: a drone relays a real-time pointcloud map to ground station, the user clicks on any point on the map, the drone autonomously follows, no visual input — direct or BLOS — needed, no conventional RC piloting. Trajectory can be preset for the drone to follow. Another pointcloud map of the entire zone is created at the end of the scan.
That was for the technology development, as for business, the scale-effect is anticipated; we started quoting for the first Batonomous™ units for our current clients and prospective ones at a competitive price offering, we’ve demoed it in LKAB’s facilities near the arctic circle where untrained personnel commanded the drone, and in Atlas Copco’s test mines near Stockholm. The main market now is underground mining, but any closed inaccessible zone in need of survey is within scope, examples include tunnels, tanks, boilers, hydropower or dangerous facilities (we’re even exploring potential of its use in the space industry — in extraterrestrial caverns, as the system is platform agnostic it can automate other non-aerial vehicles). Yet many specs of the system needs further work, such as communication range, improvement of interface, more advanced autonomy layers like mission planning, and others.
The current software-hardware architecture of sensory and flight control amalgamation provides a starter capacity, that unlocks a higher order of market potential. Its the foundation layer not the superstructure, with it and upon it, routine survey flights underground (whether accessible or inaccessible like stopes and orepasses), and integration with other subsystems of mining automation like fleeting, mine awareness and positioning systems, big data coupling and rescue programming can be built.