A New View on Mining

March 30, 2012
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The ability to provide a rapid turnaround on accurate mine data has led to success for an Australian aerial surveying firm.

An aerial photograph and digital terrain model of a major opencut dragline mine in New South Wales. The data was captured by Atlass using Trimble’s Harrier mapping system

Australia’s coal mines are essential to steelmaking operations and electricity producers worldwide. It’s a field where surveyors are in high demand--the collection and processing of survey data are crucial both for everyday mining work and for mine planning.

In 2006, an industry-wide shortage of survey teams and the pressures of maintaining everyday production meant that the few survey resources available were often fully occupied in guiding production. Much to the frustration of many mining managers, forward planning was suffering, as was long-term productivity.

Atlass uses Trimble’s Harrier mapping system, which includes flight management, an aerial camera, laser scanning, positioning (GPS/GNSS) and orientation (inertial measurement unit), as well as capture, control and processing software.

For Matthew McCauley, mining manager at Anglo Coal’s Drayton Mine in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, the situation prompted a career change. He spent six months evaluating a business case structured around providing mines with regular aerial survey data. After approaching several manufacturers and suppliers of aerial laser and image capture systems, McCauley was drawn to Trimble’s Harrier mapping system, which includes flight management, an aerial camera, laser scanning, positioning (GPS/GNSS) and orientation (inertial measurement unit), as well as capture, control and processing software.

After confirming that a business case existed, McCauley made his break from mining, established Atlass (Australia) Pty Ltd, purchased his first Trimble Harrier and a Cessna U206G aircraft, and went to work. The firm conducted its first laser survey at the Drayton Mine in August 2007.

Since then Atlass has grown considerably. The company now has Trimble Harrier 56/G3 and Harrier 68i systems, three aerial survey crews (two rotating) and three aircraft (the Cessna, a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 and a Vulcanair P68C). The twin-engine Vulcanair is the firm’s most recent purchase. It has enabled increased loiter times and extended operations that safely include work over water and areas of remote and hazardous terrain. With these resources, Atlass is flying more than 200 hours each week and running a true seven-day operation.

An aerial photograph and digital terrain model of a major opencut dragline mine in New South Wales. The data was captured by Atlass using Trimble’s Harrier mapping system.

According to McCauley, the company’s unusual position as owner and operator of aircraft, survey equipment, and processing facilities gives it a major advantage in turnaround time, quality and price. In fact the operation is running so smoothly that McCauley guarantees his mining clients will receive their data within three days, or it’s free.

Two factors in particular enable him to make that commitment. The first is his data processing team’s capacity to split shifts around aviation operations. The second is his confidence in the Trimble Harrier system, the processing software and the overall workflow. “It’s a very mature system,” McCauley says. “It does everything we need, and the hardware is extremely robust. Our first unit has done more than 2,000 hours now. It’s five years old, and I reckon it will still be going in another five.”

Just recently Atlass released a new product specifically aimed at assisting registered mine surveyors in preparing their annual statutory plans. In conjunction with its service partners, Atlass has developed a workflow for extracting break lines (tops and toes) as well as digitizing feature lines directly from the LiDAR and image data. When supplied with smoother contour data-generated points, this process provides information comparable to that achieved using traditional photogrammetric processes. According to McCauley, the product has eliminated the need for additional flights, thereby substantially reducing clients’ costs.

A digital terrain model showing surface subsidence from underground longwall mining.

With its expanding capabilities, Atlass is also finding growing demand for its services outside the mining sector. The company has been commissioned to undertake a diverse range of projects, from surveying remote power line alignments to the broad-area geomorphology and vegetation survey across the 1,000,000-square kilometer (386,000-square-mile) Murray-Darling River Basin for the Australian federal government.

Since starting operations nearly five years ago, Atlass has developed the professional expertise and systems for highly efficient capture and processing of full waveform, high-resolution LiDAR data. The company now provides many mines with survey data for forward planning, but it is finding just as much work collecting and processing data for detailed town planning, engineering design, coastal monitoring, erosion monitoring and vegetation assessment. “We provide cost-effective services that give our clients the whole picture,” McCauley says. “This allows them to focus their technical resources on their core business.”

For more information about Atlass, visit www.atlass.com.au. Additional details about Trimble’s Harrier mapping system are at www.trimble.com.

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