These are some of the largest aerial surveys by a drone, and WingtraOne made them possible

When MWH Geo-Surveys needed a drone for remote projects covering hundreds of square kilometers for massive, high-resolution maps, they chose WingtraOne, and they haven’t looked back.

In 2018, MWH geophysical exploration company won bids on two large-area mining surveys in Finland and a massive geothermal energy prospect in Nevada, USA. The firm has 40 years of terrestrial survey and exploration experience. But these projects spanned hundreds of kilometers and were impossible to conduct on foot. Airplanes were also out of the question due to land logistics.

While they had been using a fixed-wing since 2014, they needed a professional survey and mapping drone that could cover large areas, provide high accuracy and land safely to reduce downtime.

Typically when we run these surveys, we are driving off-road vehicles into fairly remote areas. And finding places that are suitable for a belly-landing aircraft is difficult. So that narrowed our search to vertical take-off flight platforms.

Marshall MacNabb

Project Manager at MWH

Large aerial survey in Lapland, FinlandLarge aerial survey in Lapland, Finland
A section of one of the two RGB maps delivered by MWH to a Finnish mining client. This and all areas of the Lapland map can be zoomed in to see detail on trees. To respect client privacy, we cannot provide this close-up view.

Beyond the normal scope of work

Indeed, MWH takes on jobs that test today’s drone survey equipment to its limits. Resource and energy clients worldwide turn to the firm to provide high-quality drone topographic surveys of remote lands. Since MWH began using drones, their projects have increased in size and complexity, to what MacNabb describes as aerial maps “above and beyond the normal scope of work.”

Both projects for Finnish mining companies were located in the Lapland area of Northern Finland, above the Arctic circle. The ground was difficult to navigate on foot. Each of them involved more than 100 flights and 70,000 images set at 5 cm (2 in) GSD, on which to base high-resolution orthophoto and DSM maps. The unique functions of the WingtraOne made the drone surveys possible.

“WingtraOne has a much higher resolution sensor, which means we could fly higher and cover more area,” MacNabb said. “It has a longer flight time, and the ability to tail-land also saved us time and made the project possible. With a belly-landing aircraft, we would have had gaps in the data where it simply wasn’t safe or appropriate to fly a mission due to no adequate landing zone.”

WingtraOne has a much higher resolution sensor, which means we could fly higher and cover more area.

Wingtra offered a “2-to-1 advantage” over their fixed-wing

According to Pix4D, MWH’s Nevada aerial mapping project is one of the largest they have seen run through their software, and about 90 percent of the RGB data was captured by WingtraOne. MacNabb said that WingtraOne offered a 2-to-1 advantage over the solution they used before—i.e., WingtraOne cut the number of flights in half.

Midway through these three large projects, MWH bought a second WingtraOne. There were times they flew both of them simultaneously, but this was for logistical reasons and only for a small portion of the project, MacNabb said.

We were able to fly an enormous area, in difficult terrain, and deliver a high-quality product to our client in a reasonable time frame.

Drone 3D mapping results from the 262 km2 (101 mi2) aerial survey in Nevada. The achieved accuracy and level of detail allowed clients to plan subsequent, targeted thermal studies to find the best sources of geothermal power.

High performance under pressure

To produce such huge maps, MacNabb and his team broke the projects into blocks of 4000 to 5000 images each, captured by the WingtraOne’s RX1R II payload. To ensure a tight fit with the ground, MWH laid eight to 10 ground control points per block. To hear MacNabb explain these logistics, watch Pix4D’s large surveys webinar.

The worst thing that could have happened during these projects would be to come back from flying, run the data and find a corner of an area missing, MacNabb said. For this reason, the MWH team depended heavily on WingtraOne to capture all areas, completely, at the highest quality, which it did consistently.

When you conduct a project, and you survey it well with adequate ground control, and it’s done with rigorous quality standards, you can trust the DSM that you’re generating to not have errors or warping or twisting across this entire span.

Hundreds of flights, extreme conditions, no issues

Beyond the unique functions of the WingtraOne, its reliability across hundreds of flights in extreme conditions impressed MWH. The Nevada survey took place during the California wildfires of 2017. Fires numbered more than 9000 and did more damage than in any other wildfire season in the state’s history. The conditions were extreme, and the WingtraOne flew relatively unaffected.

“Wingtra didn’t seem to have a problem with temperature or dust because the environment was very hot during the California fires two summers ago,” he said. “It was smoky and incredibly dusty. So we didn’t have any issues, even though with other flight platforms we have had significant problems in similar conditions,” MacNabb said.

“In our company experience, we have had to send the other fixed-wing drone we used in for service after every 100 flights due to a failure of the pitot tube in high dust environments. This means that not only are we doubling the number of flights, but we are potentially looking at five to six delays for maintenance.”

It all comes down to up-time

According to MacNabb, the big advantage of using the WingtraOne is the “incredible up-time of the platform.” Even in demanding conditions and tough environments, the WingtraOne was able to perform hundreds of consecutive flights without issue.

When they weren’t using WingtraOne, MacNabb explained that his team’s approach to fixed-wing landings became quite creative. Due to the dusty environment, and rocky ground cover, every flight of the conventional belly-landing fixed-wing drone presented a significant risk of equipment damage and unplanned downtime. Members of his crew even chased fixed-wing drones with tarps to catch them before they hit the ground, risking injury to themselves, possible data loss and definite downtime.

“It’s hair-raising, because … all it takes is one bad landing and you are sending it off to get repaired. We were by-and-large impressed by the reliability of the Wingtra compared to the belly-landing aircraft. The fact that it’s not intentionally crash landing on every, single flight means that we can have a very high percentage of up-time with very low maintenance and overhead,” MacNabb said.

“When you are doing a project of 300 flights, not needing to take the entire crew out of the field for repairs and maintenance means that it is financially possible to do these large jobs,” he continued.

We could not have completed a project this size in a timely and cost effective manner using any other platform that we have tested.”

Marshall MacNabb

Project Manager at MWH

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