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Lyceum 2021 | Together Towards Tomorrow

As drones and survey instruments become lighter and batteries become stronger, innovative ways to apply drone technology is evolving rapidly.

This panel will discuss how drones are evolving the way we explore from resource exploration, to agriculture, to transportation asset monitoring, and a myriad of other applications.



Helen McCreary
UAS Program Analyst, Ohio UAS Center

Matthew Nanney
Mobile Technology & Remote Sensing Manager, AECOM

Bart Hoekstra
Vice President, Geophysical Sales, Geometrics, Inc.

Troy Mestler
CEO, Skyfront Corp

Facilitator: Rina Hartmann
Strategic Account Executive, Seequent 


30 min

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Video transcript

(ethereal music)

On behalf of Seequent.

I’d like to welcome everyone to today’s panel discussion

on drones and how drones are evolving

the way we explore the earth.

My name is Rina Hartmann

and I’m the Strategic Account Executive

for Seequent North America.

As facilitator for today’s panel discussion.

I’m excited to welcome our panel experts.

We have Bart Hoekstra,

Vice President Geophysical Sales Geometrics Inc.

Helen McCreary, UAS Program Analyst,

Ohio UAS Center,

and Troy Mestler, CEO of Skyfront.

Thank you all for joining us

to share your expertise and insights.

Today, we will discuss how drones are evolving,

the way we collect information

and the different applications

for which they can be useful.

Originally developed in the 20th century

for military use,

today, drones are used for a variety of applications,

such as resource exploration, transportation,

asset monitoring, agriculture among others.

As drones and survey instruments become lighter

and batteries become stronger,

innovative ways to apply drone technology

is evolving rapidly.

Before we launch into the discussion,

I’d like to ask each of you to tell us

a little bit more about yourselves

and your experiences for these topic areas.

We’ll start with Bart.

<v ->Hi, I’m Bart Hoekstra.</v>

I’ve been a geophysical consultant for well over 20 years.

And I am now Vice President of Geometrics,

where we manufacture the MagArrow,

which is a technology designed

to do magnetic surveys from drones.

<v ->Thank you, Bart.</v>

And how about you Helen?

<v ->Hi everyone, I’m Helen.</v>

I got my master’s degree in near-surface geophysics

for archeology,

and I started flying drones about four or five years ago.

And I now work for the Ohio UAS center.

I am the UAS program analyst.

I deal with most of the geophysical sensors that we have.

<v ->Thanks, Helen.</v>

And Troy.

<v ->Hi everybody.</v>

My name is Troy Mestler and I’m the CEO of Skyfront.

We are a manufacturer of long endurance multi-rotor drones

that are hybrid electrics.

So we use gasoline and we convert it

into electricity in flight.

And our platforms which are called

the Perimeter series of UAVs

can fly for upwards of five hours

and carry all sorts of different payloads,

everything from LiDARS to magnetometers,

and a lot of the sensors

that are relevant to this discussion today.

A few months ago, we actually set the World Record

for drone flight time.

We actually flew the aircraft for about 13 hours

and we captured the sunrise and the sunset in one in one go

and that’s never been done before.

And that type of technology that we’re developing

can really be very useful in the geophysical sciences.

<v ->Thanks so much Troy.</v>

Sounds exciting.

For those of you who are newer to drones

we will use the terms, drones and UAV,

unmanned aerial vehicles interchangeably.

These define an aircraft without any human pilot on board.

These can also be a part of UAS unmanned aircraft system,

including a system of communications with the UAV.

Drones have become an integral part

of so many different types of projects.

Today they carry a variety of sensors.

They are slowly replacing hard to reach ground surveys

or costly manned helicopter surveys.

What are the benefits and what are the challenges

we face today?

Let’s hear from our experts.

The first question I have is,

why are AVS becoming such a big part

of the way we explore our planet?

Bart, can you answer that one?

<v ->Well, I think you hit on a couple of points already.</v>

And one is traditionally, we like to do geophysics

in areas that are hard to reach by foot.

And so being able to fly over them

greatly increases our site access.

For instance, in a lot of areas

where you’re doing archeology or UXO surveys

in Europe,

you don’t have access to the fields

because of crops that are being planted

in drones allow you to fly over those

and not disturb the ground.

I think also just in general,

the costs of doing these types of surveys

is so much less than manned aircraft.

And additionally, it’s a lot safer

because we like to do geophysics low and slow.

And that’s not always the best way

that manned aircraft like to fly.

<v ->Helen, what are the benefits of drone surveys</v>

in your projects?

<v ->We wouldn’t be able to do our projects</v>

if we didn’t have drones.

I’m not a pilot.

None of, well, actually one of my colleagues

is a real pilot.

But I am, I fly drones.

I don’t fly helicopters or planes.

So as Bart said

we’re flying all the time.

Our primary drone right now is an M600

and we use the MagArrow and we’re flying really hilly areas

down in the south of Ohio.

Areas that it would be impossible,

it would actually be impossible to fly with a helicopter.

You can’t get down into the valley

and then back up the hill.

And so the only way you can do it is with a drone.

We’re looking for abandoned oil and gas,

well heads that are leaking stuff into the environment.

So they need to be found.

They need to be capped and they all need to be found.

Otherwise you cap some of them, and they,

the rest of them keep leaking

and burst into flame and stuff.

It’s bad.

So there are just a lot of applications

where if you don’t have a drone,

it’s actually impossible to do it,

especially because we have to fly so low.

For archeology, sometimes as Bart said again,

it’s actually better to put the sensor on a drone

than it is a ground sensor

mostly to do with

if the ground is very, is variable.

If there’s like old corn stock or something,

and it would make a cart bounce around a whole bunch

and you don’t get that with a drone,

you can actually fly really steadily,

especially if you have an altimeter or something.

So we have a GPR

that, you know,

you lose penetration when you put it on a drone,

but you can actually get steadier data

than you could if it was on a cart

sometimes under certain conditions.

So yeah, lots of benefits to drones.

<v ->Thanks, Helen.</v>

Yeah, that definitely is a lot of benefits.

Another question I have was on the topic of regulations,

do you see the regulations around the use of drones

being relaxed or standardized

and how would this impact projects,

Troy, perhaps you can touch upon those?

<v ->Sure. I’d be glad to.</v>

So first let me define what the regulations

around drones are and what the main ones are.

So the main regulation

hampering, the use of drones is what people call

the BVLOS or beyond visual line of sight restriction,

which is a restriction or regulation imposed by the FAA

that says that the operator of the drone,

the pilot of the drone has to be within line of sight

of the drone at all time.

They have to be able to see it.

And, you know, the true promise of drone technology

is really being able to operate

outside of the vision

of a human being, right?

So being able to operate in areas that a human can’t access

and very far away.

So, you know, beyond visual line of sight

really restricts a drone.

Drones use to within about a mile of where it took off from.

So it kind of limits the amount of area

that can be covered during a flight.

And so, you know, to answer your question, yeah, absolutely.

You know, this we believe,

and we know that the FAA is working on ways

to relax this beyond visual line of sight restriction

so that, you know, and there’s a,

there’s a thing called the part 135 certification,

which is basically a way to certify a drone

as though it were a manned aircraft

so that it can operate safely,

you know, many miles away from the operator.

And when this restriction is relaxed,

it will allow operators to cover hundreds,

if not thousands of acres, you know, in a single flight.

And that’s when the true economic

and technological potential of drones will be realized.

And so we are big believers in that

and we see the FAA moving in that direction.

<v ->Thanks Troy, for that insight.</v>

We have some things to look forward to in the future.

In addition to magnetic and LiDAR surveys,

we see other types of sensors emerging,

such as radiometrics, electromagnetics,

and more recently, even gravity sensors.

In your opinion, are they commercially viable?

And if not, when do you foresee them

becoming commercially practical?

Helen, if you can answer that one, perhaps?

<v ->So I’ve never used a gravity sensor,</v>

so I can’t really speak to that,

but I have used EM before

I’ve used a ground-based EM,

I know that they’re testing it on drones.

I’d be interested to see the data

seeing as it’s an active method,

you’re literally inducing a current in the ground.

I don’t foresee it being that useful on a drone,

but you’d have to fly really, really low,

so low that you might as well just walk around with it.

But again, as I said, sometimes, you know,

you get benefits even if you are flying it super low.

So as for commercially viable.

So right now we have mag, we have GPR,

we have LiDAR,

we have a gamma radiation sensor,

a new gamma radiation sensor that we’re using

with the department of health.

All these have a lot of applications that we’re exploring,

especially the radiation sensor

that will keep people out of harm’s way.

We’ll be able to fly over a,

like a rubbish heap for example,

and find abandoned radiation sources,

which are surprisingly common apparently.

So, and be able to find things

where before a human being would have to walk around

this rubbish heap for hours, hours, and hours

looking for stuff.

So there is a lot of these sensors

are going to be commercially viable.

It’s just a question of getting them right.

And then learning how to use them

and learning how to deal with the data.

That’s a big one is like

sometimes the data comes out

and it looks like poop.

So you need to,

you need to figure out how to make it not look like poop,

which is a big, a big challenge.

<v ->Certainly some challenges. Bart,</v>

did you have any other insight on there?

That you want to add?

<v ->I just wanted to add some things about EM surveys</v>

that we’re starting to see

and that there may be room for things like

I guess, combined land

and drone-based measurements

by putting out large loops

to generate EM current

and then measuring them from drones.

And, you know, there may be some potential there

to do general exploration and things like that.

You know, some of the requirements really

are going to be things like

how well can you position your drone

and get the motion of that drone

because that can induce noise into the systems

and cause some of the situations

that Helen just discussed.

<v ->Yes. I think that there’s definitely some challenges</v>

and things to work towards.

My next question.

I’ll direct it, Troy,

if what are the challenges as we talk about challenges,

what are the challenges we still face with drone surveys

from your perspective?

And if you’d like, you can suggest improvements

if there are any.

<v ->Sure. Yes, so up until recently,</v>

I think the biggest challenge was endurance.

You know, so I don’t know if people are familiar,

but drones used to be able to fly for 20 to 30 minutes.

And that really limited the extent

the area to which that

an operator could cover

during a day. Right?

And you know, what our company

really was

we set out to do

was to solve the endurance issue.

So we’ve been able to crack that

and, you know, provide aircraft

that can carry magnetic sensors

for upwards of three to four hours.

So the problems that still remain now

are more software-based

and autonomy-based.

So I think the main challenge

is really is autonomy and making sure

that the object does not crash into people,

property, or even other aircraft

when it is operating autonomously

beyond visual line of sight.

And this is really a sensor and a software problem.

So, you know, what we’re doing here at Skyfront

is we’re equipping our UAVs

with forward-facing radars,

with collision avoidance

detect and avoid sensors,

things that detect aircraft in the area,

and then issue commands to the aircraft to avoid

those aircraft.

We do things like terrain following, right?

So we’ll put a radar altimeter

on the bottom of the aircraft

and using the readings from that

from that radar, we were able to go up and down

steep terrain without hitting

the, you know, a mountain or without hitting the terrain.

And so, you know the, the kind of the,

all of these technologies together

are some of the remaining challenges

that they need to be put together well,

and they need to be packaged up

in a seamless solution for the end user

so that they can just send the drone out

and be in rest assured

that they’re not going to,

that it’s not going to hit anything.

It’s still relatively early days there

but you know, certainly our company,

as well as some other companies

are making a lot of inroads into that area.

<v ->That’s fantastic. Nice to see.</v>

And Bart, did you have any other comments there?

<v ->Yeah. Troy, I wanted to ask a little bit, you know,</v>

when we talk about other geophysical technologies

like EM or radar

we need a lot of power

in our transmitters, perhaps.

And do you see any advances in that

being for the drone to be able to supply

more power to our equipment?

<v ->Yes. So our aircraft is actually capable of generating</v>

what I would call a lot of power.

So up to about 150 Watts.

And if you make the power pulsed, right?

Which is what I think would happen

if you were doing an EM,

electromagnetic survey with an active sensor

you can generate a lot more power than that, right?

Because it’s only happening for,

the impulse of the power is only happening

for a short period of time.

And the peak power can be provided

using a battery

or an ultra capacitor.

So yes, our aircraft can certainly provide,

that power

and there are ways

there are techniques too, that one can use

if that amount of power is not enough.

You know, for example, like I mentioned,

using something that’s pulsed.

<v ->Thanks so much, Troy.</v>

That’s a really, really great information.

Appreciate that.

Another question I have, perhaps I’ll ask Bart,

I’ll ask you that question.

With drone geophysics technology,

being a well-established, cost-effective survey method

in areas like mining and minerals

and other areas of use,

how do you see it being used in other sectors?

<v ->Yeah, I think one of the biggest growth sectors</v>

is going to be

the use in UXO,

because I think the, as Troy mentioned,

the ability to drape drain very closely,

I think is very important.

And, and so we’ll see that I think

as positioning gets better,

I’m sort of interested in the idea

of flying swarms of,

or one or more drones

and seeing if we can start getting

useful gradient measurements

from some of our systems

and EM sensors

and possibly flying

larger arrays

like a big EM loop or something like that.

So I would like,

I think those will be a lot of potential.

I think then

as regulations relax

or we have the ability

to fly

in more urban areas,

I think the whole use of drones

in more urban areas where we have congestion

and we’re trying to find more infrastructure,

I think could be a big growth industry as well,

and become a very standard practice.

Anytime there’s a say,

a commercial real estate transaction

that you fly a drone survey and make sure that

nothing is underground that you don’t expect there to be.

So I think those are all areas of a lot of potential growth.

And then, if we can fly beyond line of sight,

then I think the mineral exploration side of things

will grow tremendously.

<v ->Helen, did you have any other comments on there?</v>

<v ->I think to add to the infrastructure piece,</v>

we’ve had people who are very interested in drone GPR,

and I’m blanking on–


to look at the profile of riverbeds

around bridges,

which is I think going to be going to be a pretty big one

once we can figure it out

and we can, the FCC currently doesn’t let

any GPR that isn’t 500 megahertz be on a drone,

but hopefully that will change.

And we can start doing bathymetry for environmental

and for infrastructure purposes.

So there there’s a lot of growth there also, I believe,

I think another important thing to note

about drone survey

is it’s not just geophysics that you get,

it’s the layers of data.

So, you know, any geophysicist will tell you

that you want to, ideally you want to compare

a couple different types of data

so you can compare the mag

to photogrammetry,

orthomosaic or something to see

if, oh, is this, a well,

or is this a giant pickup truck

that someone parked in the middle of nowhere?

So being able to collect multiple kinds of data

is also a big benefit of drones.

Often at the same time,

you can mount several sensors at the same time.

<v ->Thank you both.</v>

I really appreciate the feedback.

I know with unexploded ordinance and infrastructure,

there are so many areas that,

these projects can help with.

So I see a lot of growth potential in these areas, for sure.

And as we near the end of our session,

I want to ask, perhaps I’ll ask each of you

some feedback on the future.

Where does the future of drone geophysics lie in your eyes?

We can start with Bart.

<v ->Well, I think that there’s a huge amount of potential for,</v>

for the use of drones.

I think as we possibly improve positioning

to the point where even in remote areas,

you can get very accurate positioning,

enable new geophysical technologies that,

require ground-based type stuff now.

But yeah, I think,

we’re certainly seeing it in areas in heavy terrain

and mountainous terrain where it really, as Helen said,

it really is the only method that works.

And I think that will really drive

all kinds of new development in remote areas.

<v ->Definitely. Thanks, Bart.</v>

How about you, Helen?

What are your thoughts about the future?

<v ->There’s going to be more of it.</v>

Tons more.

I think that as people start learning

more about it, especially,

I mean the mineral

and oil side of things

I think is going to grow first,

but everything else is going to follow

environmental and all sorts of use cases.

So especially,

I think that the growth

is going to be driven by development

of new drone technology, like Skyfront

and the opening of BVLOS.

BVLOS is a big one for us.

A lot of our project areas

we have to move around all over the place

because we can’t see the drone.

So it’s going to be a,

there’s going to be a party

when we can get BVLOS.

I’ll just put it that way.

So yeah, improving drone technology.

We’re just going to be flying.

<v ->I love that.</v>

We all want an invite to that party.

<v ->You’re all invited.</v>

<v ->And Troy, how about you?</v>

What do you think is in our future?

<v ->Well, I think drones are the future</v>

of aerial data collection altogether,

geophysics and otherwise.

And the reason for that,

are helicopters are

which are their primary carrier of these types of sensors,

they’re expensive,

they’re between one and $10 million to purchase

and $2,000 an hour to operate.

And not only that, but where they have to operate

is often low to the ground near obstacles.

And there are a lot of people

who lose their lives every year

by flying helicopters in this way.

And drones are, they’re cheaper

and they don’t kill people.

And that’s the future of aerial data collection.

And, it all hinges upon obviously

the beyond visual line of sight regulations

that I mentioned earlier

but certainly, I think that,

this is,

the future

and I would also bring up the parallel.

That’s happened in the military over the last 30 years.

And really actually since World War Two, right?

There’s been an increasing reliance on things that fly

and that things that operate autonomously

without a pilot inside of them,

everything from missiles to jet fighters

to now, surveillance like the

surveillance platforms,

like the Predator and the Reaper.

And so when you look at that

and what has happened in the military

over that time period,

the same thing is going to happen

in the commercial sector as well.

And we are eagerly awaiting that

and we’re prepared for it when that time comes.

<v ->Thanks, Troy.</v>

This has been and some pretty incredible insight

from all three of you.

And as we wrap up,

I want to open it up to any thoughts

that you’d like to share,

perhaps in closing remarks.

<v ->Well, to speak to Troy’s point about not risking lives,</v>

we’ve had two incidents with our 600 MagArrow combo

in the Backwoods of Ohio,

and nobody’s been hurt except for the 600,

which has been revived twice.

So, you know, I think it,

that’s a really, really big point is that we were able,

we’re able to, to do the work

and get the data that people need

without putting anyone in harm’s way.

And hopefully no more incidents, learning.

You got to learn from the crashes.

<v ->Yeah, yeah.</v>

<v ->Absolutely.</v>

<v ->Yeah. I think, I don’t know</v>

what all the regulations are in terms of the size of drones,

but I think when we talk about flying gravity sensors

or big EM loops, I think that,

it may be that we need to start working with

either bigger drones

or maybe being able to fly multiple drones

close together in a sort of swarm

that we can maybe have four drones

carrying a large EM loop around the

around, and maybe that could be also

a very interesting way to,

especially maybe the groundwater industry,

where we want to look a couple of hundred meters deep,

but still be able to fly around with drones

rather than the helicopters like we’re doing now.

<v ->All extremely valuable information.</v>

And I love all the futuristic thoughts

and visions that we have.

Bart, Helen, Troy,

we appreciate you taking your time today

to share your knowledge and experiences with us

and to help us better understand

both the current workflow challenges

and future capabilities of drones.

On behalf of myself and Seequent.

We thank you.

(dramatic instrumental music)