Mining companies have been adopting drone technology to survey and map mineral resources above ground, but sending the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) below surface is still an emerging concept.
It’s an area in which SafeSight Exploration believes there’s lots of room for competition, and in which the North Bay company is quickly making a name for itself.
The company was the overall winner during a North Bay Pitch event, hosted by the Northern Ontario Angels, in November.
“The idea and the concept and the work towards applying drone technology to an underground setting have been around for a couple of years, but it's still very much an open space where there is no dominant player,” said SafeSight’s president and founder, Mike Campigotto.
“Some of the bigger players in Europe are now investing millions and millions of dollars trying to figure some of this stuff out, but nobody has claimed any sort of title yet.”
Underground, drones can be deployed to do risky, tedious inspections that would otherwise have to be completed by a worker.
Whether it’s inspecting a drift for wear and tear, or assessing an ore chute for erosion, the drone, using light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology, can complete a 360-degree survey of an area, serving up “a super accurate, to-the-millimetre survey of the entire cavity,” Campigotto said.
Getting a drone to do the work reduces the hazard to the employee, increases the accuracy of the results, and shortens the turnaround time of the data analysis, he noted.
SafeSight entered the fray last year after Campigotto, acting on a suggestion from someone in the industry, assembled a team of experts to work on the concept.
The retired entrepreneur, who formerly ran a successful business in the tech industry, reached out to his contacts – a mining engineer, electrical engineer, aviation specialist, geologist, and robotics and software engineer – and got to work.
“Because we have multiple disciplines around the table, we can do rapid innovation and accelerate the development cycle,” he said.
Just over a year after launching, Campigotto said the company has caught up to competitors and is close to surpassing what most currently offer the industry.
Rather than reinventing the wheel, SafeSight employs proven, best-in-class technology, such as drones from DJI and LiDAR technology from Velodyne, and builds on it.
Using drones underground presents some unique challenges: components like barometric controls and GPS don’t work underground, and so SafeSight is focusing on developing proprietary sensors that allow the machine to work independent of satellite-enabled technology.
Campigotto said the company won’t release a solution as “developed, stable, reliable and repeatable” – a four-pronged approach that’s become the company’s guiding creed – until it’s been vetted with real clients through real-world testing.
“I'm a big believer in boots on the ground: if you're not in the dirt with whatever service and solution you're selling, you lose touch with the client's reality,” Campigotto said.
“So it's really important to us to work directly with operational, active mines, in collaboration, with mutual benefit, because moving the technology forward benefits the entire industry as well as the client that we're happening to do it with.”
Though Campigotto acknowledges the technology’s myriad other applications – the company has already received overtures from the City of Toronto to use drones to survey subway tunnels – he said SafeSight is concentrated on perfecting the underground mining function first.
He envisions a day when an underground autonomous drone can wake up at night, fly a prescribed assessment mission, and return to the hangar to upload the data to a company’s head office, wherever in the world that may be.
Campigotto estimates the company will double its staff of eight over the next three years, and he sees future job creation in robotics, electrical engineering, geology and more.
There’s also a plan to create a flight academy for underground UAV operation, which will require pilots and trainers.
That’s still a long way off, however, and in the meantime, Campigotto said SafeSight’s mandate is twofold: create economic innovation in the community of North Bay and contribute something meaningful to the sector.
“Mining is in the bones of most of the community here, and Northern Ontario worldwide is seen as a sort of centre of excellence,” Campigotto said.
“We'd like to contribute a new pillar of underground drone technology to that centre of excellence, so we're very much looking for both collaborators and partners in the industry … that see the same value proposition as we do and really want to be part of what I believe is the bottom of a curve that is just starting to get its momentum."