By Luke Carothers

Over of the last several years, drones and UAV technology have gone from a niche of the AEC industry to a fully-developed tool capable of not only collecting images, but also data.  One of the pioneers responsible for this transformation is Christian Sanz, CEO of Skycatch.

Sanz’s first foray into the world of UAVs came in late 2011 when he began working to host drone competitions.  These competitions pitted schools, companies, and other groups against each other; in no small part, these competitions, among others things, played a large role in the public’s fascination with the burgeoning technology, appearing at incredibly popular festivals such as SXSW.  

However, Sanz soon began thinking about how the data captured by these drones could be used to impact the physical world; he started looking primarily in the industrial space.  In order to get a lay of the land, Sanz spent a lot of this time driving around with his drones in the back of his pickup truck, visiting various construction sites asking for permission to fly his drone and capture data from the site.  This gave him perspective on how people, particularly at job sites and within the industrial space, were using data to visualize the physical world around them.  Furthermore, Sanz focused on how that data affected the day-to-day functions such as productivity and safety.

The result of this intensive study was that, especially within the industrial space, projects were entirely dependent on high-accuracy 3D mapping.  Furthermore, Sanz noticed that all the tools that were being used to build these 3D models were outdated, expensive, or inaccurate.  Many sites were relying on laser scanners mounted on trucks, which posed several critical issues.  First and foremost, these laser scanners took weeks of labor to collect the data.  To compound this issue, these laser scanners, mounted on trucks, posed a safety issue to those using it.

Sanz’ solution to these problems was to find a way to retrofit drones with automated sensors and automate the collection of data, resulting in high resolution imagery and high precision.  This started with creating maps for construction projects; they found success in creating these maps in the early days, working with companies such as Apple to map their new campus.  However, Sanz and his team soon keyed in on the mining industry as the perfect space for Skycatch to expand.

Sanz and his team saw the mining industry as a neglected space in terms of entrepreneurship, relying on tools and processes that had been developed decades before and had not been updated.  They dove into the economics of mining and its impact on the world.  Sanz notes that, while we have a tightly woven relationship with mineral-use, mining can be costly and has a significant impact on the Earth.  

However, while this realization showed promise, Sanz and his team believed that it would take nearly a decade to develop software capable of automating data throughout the entire mining process.  For example, they still had to develop capabilities necessary for the mining industry such as automating the removal of manmade objects, reprojecting all points on a point cloud to a local coordinate system, adapting to tens of thousands of colors on the ground, and other processes.  On top of that, this process would be very costly.  

To achieve these goals, Skycatch formed a partnership with Komatsu.  This partnership was not only commercial, but it fostered development acceleration for the firm.  By 2017, Skycatch had fully developed each of these technologies which were then tested by Komatsu; this date greatly exceeded the initial prediction of a decade.

Since this partnership and others, Skycatch has exploded on the market.  These technological developments not only have a significant role in impacting not only the economics of a project, but also the safety of the workers on the project.  For example, the reclamation portion of a mining operation is consistently one of the most dangerous for workers.  It involves returning toxic materials to the ground; during this process, workers can be endangered by structural changes, cracks, and water seepage.  High accuracy scanning helps prevent accidents associated with these issues.

As more challenges of making data more accurate are overcome, the industry will hopefully see a rise in not only the economic realm, but also in negating the impacts of dangers to workers and the natural environment.  With new layers of information, mines will see a positive impact on modeling, planning, and revenue performance.