Drone tech goes underground for safety

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Emesent co-founders Stefan Hrabar and Farid Kendoul

New technology from a CSIRO-affiliated tech company will see drones capturing data in mines and underground locations too dangerous for people to enter.

Emesent, a drone autonomy spin-out from CSIRO, the technology arm of Australia’s national science agency, has raised $3.5 million in venture capital to commercialise its first product, Hovermap.

Main Sequence Ventures, which manages the CSIRO Innovation Fund, led the funding round along with long-time Bechtel mining executive Andy Greig.

Developed by former researchers from CSIRO’s Data61, Emesent’s world-leading Hovermap technology automates the collection of valuable data in underground areas too dangerous or difficult for people to survey or navigate, such as stopes or ore passes in mines.

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Drones installed with Hovermap can be deployed in GPS-denied environments without a human controller to create 3D maps, and record gas readings, videos and images. Hovermap draws on a decade of research by CSIRO’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems group into drone autonomy and 3D LiDAR-based simultaneous localisation and mapping (3D SLAM) techniques.

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3D point cloud map of a mine stope created with Hovermap

Co-founder and CEO of Emesent Dr Stefan Hrabar said Hovermap enables the mining industry to safely inspect inaccessible areas of underground mines, while improving the type and quality of data collected to unlock new insights.

“This includes comparing the stope design to the actual post-blast shape to detect over-break and under-break, identification of geotechnical structures and accurate post-blast volume reconciliations,” he said.

“The data we gather improves a mine’s productivity and provides a better understanding of conditions underground, all without sending surveyors and miners into potentially hazardous areas.”

Before spinning out of CSIRO, Emesent established its leadership in this new category of automating industrial operations in the underground world.

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Last year, Hovermap enabled the world’s first fully autonomous beyond line-of-sight drone flight in an underground mine, 600 metres below the surface of Western Australia.

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Setting up Emesents Hovermap to explore an underground mine

Emesent’s Hovermap system is already being used commercially for a variety of applications by early adopters in Australia, the US, Canada, China and Japan.

A new program targeting the underground mining sector has now been rolled out, providing early access to Emesent’s mining-specific autonomy functions to selected participants.

“The investment will give us the opportunity to build out our team from seven to 25, and make Emesent a global leader in drone autonomy and automated underground data collection and analysis,” Dr Hrabar said.

The real world applications of this technology extends beyond mining and can be integrated into industries such as underground rail and road transport, telecommunications, and disaster response.