Cut & Fill Calculations: Why Technology is a Game Changer for Dirt Moving Companies

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Guide to Drone Series: How We Choose the Right Tool

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By Andrew Maximow, Chief Drone Officer.

At Firmatek, we believe in using the right tool for the right job. Utilizing the best technology available helps ensure that we can equip our clients with the business intelligence that they need to improve their operations. In order to deliver on that objective, Firmatek evaluates our client’s site needs and develops an action plan. A one-size-fits-all solution in our industry isn’t practical, so we work with our clients to determine the best tool for precise and efficient data collection.

We frequently get asked about the drones or UAVs that we use.  What is the best drone? Why do you use such-and-such vendor?  The answers to those common questions vary. It depends on the particular customer problem we are trying to solve, the insights, the technical deliverables, and several other key factors.  Those other factors include the type of data being collected, data accuracy, and other aspects such as environmental conditions, mobility, simplicity, etc.  Oh, and of course, the cost!  Part of my responsibility as CDO is to utilize technology that delivers high quality results for our clients in a mutually beneficial way for Firmatek.

There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all drone that has all of the desired characteristics of an ideal payload, flight time, ease of use, and affordability. Each user, even within the same industry, has his or her own needs and preferences. This presents a complex problem that is compounded by the speed of innovation.  There are a handful of dominant players but there is no shortage of product development by established players and startups— especially in the data acquisition, navigation, software and analytics space.  Consider this, there’s a new software/app/portal product announcement roughly every 4-6 weeks. Based on a recent count, there are no less than 30 LiDAR sensor vendors.  Granted, much of the innovation is driven by the self-driving car industry, but relevant to UAVs.  So, how does Firmatek navigate this complexity and make sound technology and product decisions?  How do we work with vendors and pick the right UAV for the right job?  I’ll break it down in this blog post and others to follow.

First of all, Firmatek is not a drone company.  We’re not an OEM, nor are we a systems integrator. We are not tied down to a specific technology or product.  We are a services company that provides insights based on analytics derived from a variety of data collection tools, including UAVs.  Our services-led, technology-enabled approach allows us to be hardware agnostic, constantly evaluating a plethora of commercially available, off the shelf (COTS) HW/SW platforms. We prefer simplicity and therefore lean towards COTS products with clear product road-maps that tend to support innovation and avoid obsolescence.

Let’s cut through the complexity by explaining how our services-led, technology-enabled approach simplifies the UAV evaluation and product selection process.

If we consider the commercial UAV space as four primary markets, we can quickly narrow down the platforms & products supporting Firmatek’s primary industries of mining/aggregates, landfill, and construction. The four primary markets are:

1) Reality Capture, 3D Mapping

2) Public Safety

3) Inspection

4) Professional Video/Photo, Cinematography

For the markets that Firmatek serves, we need the UAVs that excel in the Reality Capture/3D Mapping market. Insights, deliverables, and measurements in this market need to be geospatially accurate, demanding a particular type of payload and camera spec, positioning system, and autonomy (more on these criteria in a future blog post). There are very few UAVs that do Reality Capture/3D Mapping well because of these requirements.

While these requirements are constant across all types of work that we perform, there are differences based on the type of work. We have a few different business models and types of work that we perform at Firmatek: production-oriented, special projects, and R&D.

The majority of our work is based on frequently recurring mapping projects. These production-oriented projects require a high volume of consistent and repeatable data collection.  For this type of work, we enable some of our clients to fly/collect their own data and upload to Firmatek. This allows them to utilize a robust UAV system that is easy to use, purpose built, and autonomous with minimal configuration while still being inexpensive to operate. It also provides our clients with the flexibility they need.

By contrast, special projects and R&D require specialized UAVs. These special projects may be unique because of their size and scope or because of the type of sensor needed to accomplish the job.

Usually, the customer’s site size dictates the type of UAV. Based on roughly 2,500 projects performed last year, we can group them in categories of small (less than 200 acres), medium (200-500 acres) and large (more than 500 acres.)

As we examine the data, there is a correlation between production-oriented projects and small/medium sized sites. These types of projects, while still requiring high accuracy, are mostly flown by our clients. All factors considered, the logical choice is a small, inexpensive multi-rotor UAV that delivers repeatable, accurate results when combined with some form of ground control.

Medium and large projects often times have special technical requirements or challenging environmental constraints that dictate a fixed-wing UAV rather than the quadcopter we typically recommend for the smaller sites. One of the advantages of a these types of UAVs is that it can fly for longer, and therefore it does a better job and is more efficient covering these larger areas.

As you begin to consider your options think about asking yourself these questions:

  1. What type of information am I looking to get from a UAV?
  2. What are the requirements for achieving this information? What sensors? What level of accuracy?
  3. Will I be performing repetitive work or one-off projects?
  4. How large of an area will I need to fly?
  5. What is my skill level (or my pilot’s)? How complex do I want my solution to be?

Determining the right tool for the right job is dependent on a number of factors that are unique to your operation and your projects. When choosing a UAV platform, we consider the particular customer problem we are trying to solve, the insights needed, and the technical deliverables requested. Providing quality data efficiently has always been a priority for the Firmatek team. We are a services-led, technology enabled company, which enables us to evaluate many types of hardware and find the best one for the job at hand. We will continue to strive be a trusted advisor to our clients and thought leaders in our industry.

In a future blog post we’ll dive deeper into why we choose specific UAV products at Firmatek.

Use Technology to Avoid Common Stockpile Measuring Mistakes

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By Lauren Elmore. Published in Aggregates Manager.

Stockpile measurements are an integral part of running a successful aggregates business. Operating efficiency and profits depend on stockpile measurements, yet many aggregates operations are guilty of making numerous common mistakes.

Leaders in the aggregates industry know their business, but they don’t generally know the ins and outs of the technology used to measure it. Gathering data can be extremely complex, and a skilled professional can find and address issues in order to deliver the best results possible. To keep everything moving forward in an organization, working with a service company is one of the most effective solutions for gathering and processing data into a usable form.

Stockpile measurements aren’t 100 percent perfect, but operators should focus on making accuracy one of their top priorities. With a more refined picture of stockpiles, an operator can base decisions on sound data instead of deceptive estimates, improving efficiency and boosting profit margins. To solve some of the most common measurement problems, keep the following strategies in mind.

1. Choose the right technology for your needs.

To manage resources, an operator has to measure them accurately. Depending on the types of technologies used, operations are often left with incomplete data sets. They may not be able to measure the entire pile, which means they need to make assumptions that will affect decisions down the road.

The best way to obtain accurate measurements is to use the right mix of technology. For most sites, a drone or a mix of terrestrial LIDAR and drones will be a good mix. However, if the operator has a very large site (more than 5,000 acres), aircraft-based LIDAR or photogrammetry may be a good option to collect accurate data.

2. Measure consistently.

Infrequent measurements that are only made once or twice per year can also contribute to errors in inventory, and these mistakes will impact operations and sales.

In the aggregates industry, quarries and yards are dynamic environments. Huge machines are capable of moving thousands of tons of material in a single day. Over the course of weeks and months, entire landscapes can change, rendering previous measurements obsolete.

Quarterly or monthly measurements are a good starting point for most operations. Some operations that move a lot of material may need to measure as frequently as weekly in order to obtain a strong understanding of the material they have on the ground.

3. Make adjustments instead of corrections.

Many operations simply correct numbers when they find an inconsistency in measurements. While updating the books to reflect reality is a necessary step, it also fails to take into account the source of the problem.

Instead, adjustments must be made to determine why numbers are off so that the inconsistency doesn’t continue to manifest itself. Density numbers are a frequent source of error — if the density is off by even a tenth of a ton per cubic yard, the inventory measurement may be woefully inaccurate.

Data is revolutionizing our world, and the aggregates industry is no different. Innovative measurement techniques have led to improvements in safety, accuracy, and affordability, encouraging industry leaders to view consistent stockpile measurements as an investment instead of a cost. Accurate measurements give organizations the confidence to make good decisions, ultimately leading to better business outcomes.


Getting Up to Speed on our New Drone Tech

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By Dallas VanZanten, Operations Manager.

At Firmatek, we strive to remain on the forefront of innovation and technology. If you’ve read any of our previous blogs, you know we talk a lot about providing insights to our clients. We are constantly researching and testing new tech that we think is beneficial to our services. We want to equip our clients with the business intelligence they need to improve their operation. Making sure that we have the best technology available – the right tool for the right job – helps us ensure that we can do that. Providing the best in precise and efficient data collection continues to be a top priority for the Firmatek team.

With this in mind, we recently had a field technician training day where we introduced our team to two new members of our drone family. During our All Company Meeting last month, our field team got together for basic training on the DJI P4P RTK with Base Station and the FireFly6 Pro drone.

To take proper care of our drones, we’ve teamed up with GO Professional Cases.

DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro with RTK is a drone that we are deploying both internally and to our clients this year. The upgrade to the P4P gives our team and our clients the same easy to fly system that we have come to love from DJI, and in addition gives us a much more robust system. The addition of RTK will save both our team and our clients significant amounts of time in the field, because with the RTK system, there is no need to establish ground control points. Overall, this new drone will simplify data collection for our team and our clients. The ease of use and the increased accuracy without the need for ground control makes this platform a great option for many of our mining clients.

“The DJI P4P RTK (or P4R for short) platform is major upgrade to the Phantom 4 Pro UAV system that Firmatek has been using successfully, in conjunction with ground control for accurate 3D mapping applications. The P4R is fully integrated with a DJI base station that operates in RTK mode, virtually eliminating the need for manual ground control. When the base is placed over a known control point, the images are automatically geo-referenced in real time. The P4R works in VRS and PPK modes as well,” said Andrew Maximow, Chief Drone Officer.

Along with the DJI P4P RTK training, we also showcased our FireFly 6 Pro. It’s a Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) drone that also uses RTK for precise mapping. With a VTOL drone, you get the convenience of a vertical take-off, like a standard quadcopter, and the efficiency of a fixed wing drone. The combination of these features makes the FireFly 6 a great platform for many of our large mapping projects.

Our field techs weighed in on the effectiveness of the FireFLY and here’s what they had to say:

“The FireFLY is a remarkably speedy drone. It’s VTOL capabilities allow us to map large areas with the speed and efficiency of a fixed wing, while allowing us to take off and land from areas that previously would not be possible,” said Isaac Chantos, Geospatial Field Technician.

“The FireFLY’s modular payload system allows us to not only obtain imagery, but scan with a variety of sensors,” said Justin Real, Geospatial Field Technician.

Introducing new technology into our fleet comes with the necessity to understand and update work flows, learn new processes, and create new Standard Operating Procedures. We know that while there are a lot of similarities, each piece of equipment has its own quirks. That’s one of the reasons we took some time to get everyone on the team an introduction to the new equipment.

Training is an important part of setting up our team and our clients for success. It is critical for our team to have the skills to succeed. If we just give them the tool, but don’t give them knowledge to use it, we are not going to be successful. In addition, training gives our team the opportunity to gain skills and grow as professionals. We give them the knowledge to raise the bar.

At Firmatek, we believe in using the right tool for the job.  Training our team to utilize new technology not only gives them the tools they need to succeed, but also allows them to better serve our clients.

We are a services-led and tech-enabled company. We need to give our team and our clients the best technology, and we need to be prepared to deploy it successfully. Training days like these allow our team to familiarize themselves with the technology, understand what each piece of technology is best suited for, and prepare to serve and support our clients. We are already deploying this new technology both internally and to clients and look forward to continuing to add new tools to our toolbox in 2019.

Photo credit: Guinn Partners.

Drone Case Partnership with GPC Custom Cases.

FireFLY6 Pro drone from BirdsEyeView Aerobotics.

DJI Phantom 4 with RTK

Identifying Joint Sets and Extracting Orientations for Mine and Pit Planning

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Contributors: Andrew Maximow, Kyle Houston, Caleb Cass, Lauren Elmore.

At Firmatek, we are always looking for new ways to help clients solve problems. One client recently approached us about finding a better way to identify joint sets. The process is historically done by a visual inspection. We do many different types of work where we transform 3D scan data into analytics and reports that assist in mine and pit planning for our clients. So when the client approached us about creating this new deliverable, we were excited about the opportunity.

By examining joint set orientation, Firmatek helps our mining clients increase productivity, reduce waste, and improve safety.  According to project engineer, Kyle Houston, G.I.T., understanding joint set orientation in a quarry is a major factor in determining the preferred orientation of pit walls.

Joint Sets and Their Importance

Geologic and tectonic activity cause tensile stresses which create systematic breaks and cracks in rocks.  Often times, these breaks or cracks occur in parallel, evenly spaced groups called joint sets. Joint sets are an important piece of information for mine engineers and geologists who are working to create, monitor, and update mine plans.

It turns out that blasting along a pit wall that is oriented correctly to these joint sets is predictable and optimal. This increases the amount of material mined in a single blast, while minimizing the volume of material needed to be excavated in the floor. With regards to safety, properly designed highwalls are also less likely to slough off.

The importance of joint sets to operational efficiencies and safety made this project a great fit for Firmatek. We love to work on projects that will provide insights to our clients, allowing them to make better business decisions and operate more efficiently.

Measuring and Identifying Joint Sets

How do you safely identify joint sets without physically getting close to highwalls to measure joints and orientations?  Firmatek uses LiDAR scanning technology to build a detailed 3D model. We can then use this model for measurements, determining patterns and orientation, and data visualization.  We use the Reigl VZ 400 in combination with a Nikon D700 DLSR camera to collect a colorized point cloud. This technology can be deployed at a safe distance and results in an accurate and detailed 3D representation of the rock face.  The colorization of the point cloud comes from the combination of the camera and the LiDAR scanner and is used to enhance data visualization.

After the data is gathered and prepped, Kyle uses 3D modeling software to analyze the point cloud. He looks for patterns in the data-sets, measures surfaces, and identifies significant groups of parallel surfaces (the joint sets).   

In the final analysis, he plots the measurements and orientation of the various joint sets on a rose diagram. The results are superimposed on a geospatially accurate map of the quarry site.

New Projects, New Deliverables, Better Business Intelligence for Clients

Mining engineers need to have a clear and accurate understanding of joint set orientation so that they can design blasting and pit progression to occur at specific angles to that orientation.

Our team of expert mining engineers and geologists understand our client’s needs. This joint set mapping project is just one example of how we partner with clients on new projects and new technology to bring them information that gives them better business intelligence. Then they can go on to improve their operations. It’s another example of our services led and technology enabled approach.

Why We Invest in our Team

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We know our employees play a huge role in making Firmatek a great place to work. That’s why at least once a year, we invest the time, energy, and money to bring the whole team together under one roof at our San Antonio headquarters. The week is filled with meetings, team building activities, competitions, and social events. It’s something we look forward to every year.

We believe that it is important to bring our dispersed organization together. We have individuals working all over the country. Many of them work in the field or home offices on a daily basis and only interact with other members of the team via phone, slack, or video conference. Technology has made it much easier for us to stay connected as a dispersed organization. However, there’s no substitute for some in-person face time with your team. Our employees really do put their team first, one of our core values. But it is certainly easier to do that for someone who you’ve had a beer with, maybe even thrown some axes with. (This year we tried something new and went to an axe throwing place for team bonding, and it was a hit.) Bringing the team together to connect is the most important reason we do this once or twice a year. And it’s not just about our field team or even our larger operations team. The importance of these meetings is about bringing everyone together from Sales to Admin to Engineering to Ops.

“We are spread out all over the country. So getting everyone together for a week and learning about Firmatek’s purpose and our WHY is very important. It helps the morale and team comradery. It also shows how each individual has an essential role in our operation,” said Dallas VanZanten, Operations Manager.

Chris Mauldin, Operations Manager, presents his team’s innovation competition idea.

So how do we bring these meetings to life? How do we make it worth the money? The time? How do we get a diverse group engaged? How do we get them to believe it’s worth it? I wonder that every year. Often, at the end, I wonder if it was. There are inevitably things that people didn’t like, things they think we should do instead, activities that fell flat. It would certainly be easier to not do them or allow the teams to be siloed by where one sits in the organization. But that’s not the culture we want to cultivate at Firmatek.

Rob Wyssbrod, Firmatek COO, presenting his Firmatek brand board with team.

One of the challenges that we have found as we have grown beyond a predominantly field organization is how to engage the entire team – not just our field or operations team. When we started these meetings 5 years ago, we had 10 people and we were walking through and discussing our first ever Standard Operating Procedures. We, and the meetings, have come a long way. This year, we focused on communicating Firmatek’s purpose and brand with about 35 employees. It is something that is extremely important to our organization and also something that each person, regardless of their functional area, needs to understand and be connected to.

“Employees rarely get the chance to interact with their coworkers outside of the office, let alone the President or CEO of the company. Firmatek’s all company meeting provided the most in-depth understanding of the company’s purpose and our why. Being a new employee, this week-long company meeting provided me with supreme confidence because I’ve gained more insight into why we do what we do and was able to look around the room and see who I’m doing it with. I’ll go to battle with these guys any day,” said Henze Gustave, Drone Specialist.

Lauren Elmore, Firmatek president, trying her hand at axe throwing.

We engage through teams made up of members from different parts of the organization. We focused on personal purpose, as well as our company’s purpose and vision. We celebrated company values. We talked about our brand and some brands we admire. We celebrated standout performances and individuals. We showcased unique projects and new capabilities.

We also had dinners, happy hours, and social activities- like the axe throwing. These fun activities give us a chance to get to know each other outside of the work we do. The teams that formed throughout the week provided an opportunity to learn from people in different roles in the organization, and they gave us a chance to get to know those people, the way they think, and their strengths so that we feel more comfortable calling on one another throughout the year ahead. In addition, it gets us out of our silos and reminds us that each piece of the organization plays an important part in our ability to serve our clients.

So, was it worth it? I believe it was and will continue to be worth the investment. Hopefully, we will continue to make them better and more worthwhile every year.

The Solution is Sky High

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By Mark S. Kuhar. Published in Rock Products.

ROGERS GROUP EMBRACES TECHNOLOGICAL EFFICIENCY WITH FIRMATEK’S ENTERPRISE DRONE SOLUTIONS.

Rogers Group Inc. is the seventh largest producer of crushed stone in the United States, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Headquartered in Nashville, Rogers Group has quarry operations across the Midwest and Southern states.

Rogers Group began using San Antonio-headquartered Firmatek for annual inventory measurements in 2017, and it has since rolled out an Enterprise Drone Solutions Program in partnership with the company.

Firmatek’s technology has given Rogers Group a solution to many inventory management problems, thus allowing the company to focus its time and effort in other areas of its operations. The approach to adapting new technology has also improved the company’s culture of innovation.

Traditional Measurement

Prior to working with Firmatek in 2017, Rogers Group managed its inventory with annual flyovers in combination with proper belt scale and loadout scale calibrations. While that may have kept them in the ballpark, most day-to-day decisions were based off of visual inspections. While this was a valid approach years ago, technology now enables companies like Rogers Group to get accurate inventory numbers on a much more frequent basis.

The goal is to have the products that customers need, when they need them. However, with old technology and infrequent measurements, it is a guessing game. Newer technology can provide a cost-effective way to have better business intelligence on which to base decisions.

Inventory numbers are critical to being an effective supplier of aggregates, as with all commodities. It is important for those making decisions to have an accurate inventory number on which they can base their decisions. Key decisions like, what products to produce and what the balance of products should be in a market area, are critical to maintaining relationships and preferred supplier status in the marketplace.

Rogers Group Out in Front

While many companies in the industry have been exploring drone solutions for inventory measurement and management, Rogers Group is among the first to successfully implement an enterprise-wide program.

Rogers Group partnered with Firmatek to tackle this program. Internally, Rogers Group has committed to improving their technological efficiencies. Their initial focus was in the inventory management sector.

“Rogers Group has always utilized an aerial solution for inventory, but not the management piece,” said Jared Nix, , director of corporate quality control for Rogers Group. “We needed the capability to acquire real-time measurement at the frequency that works best for us. Drones have given us that option.”

Firmatek worked with Rogers Group to develop an enterprise program that worked for them. The two worked together to develop custom forms, emails and approval processes to meet all of Rogers Groups internal requirements and create an easy and efficient process in order to promote adoption.

At Rogers Group, you need approval from the strategic market area vice president and the director of corporate quality. Rogers Group also has a Risk Management department that gets a form from Firmatek so that they can track the drones and manage their risk easily. That’s the administrative side. There is also an onboarding and training process. Firmatek worked with another provider to run a two-day training session to get a number of pilots up and running quickly.

“Drones fit in our strategy by being another tool for our toolbox of continuous process improvement,” Nix said. “Technology, especially in our industry, has and continues to rapidly evolve over the years. We do our best to stay on the cutting edge and I feel that drone use helps maintain that innovative culture.”

Rogers Group currently has about 15 pilots utilizing 11 drones across the company. Once they have their FAA Part 107 license, Firmatek ships them a drone and they start flying when it is convenient.

Rogers Group requests everything from inventory measurements to ortho photos to pit progressions. Instead of one measurement a year, they are measuring monthly. These frequent measurements help keep the inventory numbers accurate throughout the year and enable them to make more informed business decisions.

“We follow all FAA regulations regarding airspace and flight safety,” Nix said. “We also respect our neighbor’ privacy and confine the flight parameters to our own property. However, we have also provided the drone service to the community during fundraisers and other community outreach activities.”

Why Firmatek

There are a number of drone providers offering products and services to the aggregates industry. Rogers Group chose Firmatek because Firmatek’s innovative, forward-thinking approach to technology complimented its own ideas.

In addition, “It’s simple, fast, accurate, accommodating and most importantly exhaustive,” Nix said. “Firmatek refuses to consider a project deliverable complete until we are completely satisfied with the end product.”

The company has a unique history. Founded in 1988, Firmatek pioneered the use of lasers to measure stockpiles. Since then, it has continued to bring new technology into the aggregate mining industry, revolutionizing the way data is captured and analysis and insights are provided to the industry. In addition to introducing laser measurement to the industry, the company also pioneered mobile LiDAR as a tool to capture data. 

With that history of innovation, Firmatek continues that legacy today. They are a national leader in drone solutions for the aggregate mining industry, providing enterprise drone solutions to the largest producers in the country. Firmatek also recently launched their software development department, showing their continued commitment to offering the industry better tools and ways to visualize their data and gain insights and business intelligence from the data.

New Technology

Rogers Group recognizes the importance of embracing technology in this industry, and the company is committed to improving its use and commitment to technological efficiency. The company knows that technology will continue to impact its work, and will see that impact growing exponentially.

The aggregate industry is constantly evolving, demanding more from technology. For example, the workforce is changing, demanding industry-wide innovation, and the speed of information availability is increasing, demanding more from technology.

Rogers Group is excited about the new opportunities that drone technology brings to their organization regarding mine planning, construction and even training. Firmatek is working with Rogers Group to continue to develop new applications and ways to incorporate drones into their operations.

“Firmatek is a service organization, and we enjoy partnering with clients to find solutions,” said Lauren Elmore, president of Firmatek. “In fact, in September we worked with two clients, including Rogers Group, doing on-site presentations and working sessions to continue to develop new solutions and educate the organizations about the technology and how to use it effectively.”

So what does the future hold?

“The sky is the limit, pun intended,” Nix said. “One of the strongest appeals to me for drone use is its untapped potential. I am constantly being asked by folks within Rogers Group, ‘can we use the drone for this, or for that?’”

And almost every time the “this” is a new concept and the answer ends up being, “yes.”

Firmatek Transforms Drone Data into Insights in the Aggregate Mining Industry

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By: Jeremiah Karpowicz. Published in UAV Commercial News. Q&A with Firmatek president, Lauren Elmore.

Being able to transform drone data into actionable insights that can drive business decisions is becoming more and more of a priority for operators of all types. After all, it’s easier than ever to send a drone into the air to gather information, but what’s being done with that data after the flight is complete? How is that information being integrated into or impacting an established workflow? Most users understand that drones can make a given task faster, cheaper or safer, but how are those efficiencies quantified?

At DJI AirWorks 2018, Firmatek President Lauren Elmore explored all of these topics in great detail during her Transform Site Data into Powerful Insights with Drone Technology presentation. Since her company delivers accurate and measurable data to assist their clients in effectively managing their business, her insights around these topics were as powerful and they were informative. They’re just part of the reason that Firmatek is currently servicing 14 of the top 15 aggregate producers.

During her presentation, Lauren shared numerous experiences from the aggregate mining industry, showcased how one of their clients embraced new technology to increase operational efficiency and keep their employees safe, and explored exactly how Firmatek has been able to transform data into insights. Her presentation was one of the best I’ve seen around defining this critical but sometimes amorphous topic, and it’s why I wanted to detail and more fully explore much of what she laid out in the interview below.

Jeremiah Karpowicz: As the President of Firmatek, you’ve helped to enable your company’s transition from a laser scanning company into a leader in drone solutions for aggregate mining. What can you tell us about when and how you recognized this need for transformation and how drones became a part of it?

Lauren Elmore: We saw that the change was coming, but we didn’t necessarily recognize it would happen so quickly.

In late 2014 we began learning about and getting involved in the drone industry. We recognized in early 2015 that there were a lot of new competitors and clients were starting to ask about a drone option. That’s when we really started ramping up our R&D on the different technology options at that point and started thinking through a new business model for drone technology.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of this transition?

There have been a number of challenges as we started our drone program from scratch. One has been the technology itself.

Initially, the drones that were capturing quality data were at a price point that was too expensive and complicated for many of our clients. Because we are experts in and understand geospatial data, we were not willing to give something to our clients that was not going to get them the accurate information that they needed. We took our time, worked with a lot of vendors and a lot of clients. Eventually, the technology tools became available to deliver a great solution to our clients and for our team to use in the field. We believe in giving our clients supreme confidence and so we needed to feel confident internally with the repeatability of the results.

Q: Part of that transition undoubtedly involved realizing that the position of “chief drone officer” was a necessary one for your company, and that’s a made a big difference for you. How has the insight and perspective of a CDO impacted the conversations you’re able to have with clients and even internally?  

The decision to hire a CDO was an important one for us. We knew we were viewed as a laser company not likely to “make it” in this new world of drones. We needed a drone industry insider to help us break into the drone world. We needed to show we were a player and intend to stay. But more than that, we knew we needed someone who could help us stay on the forefront of drone technology, who knew people in the drone industry, and who could help us become thought leaders.

It has been very helpful with our clients to be able to bring in a “drone” expert to our conversations with clients. Our CDO is constantly working on finding new technology, whether it’s new sensors or drones, to bring to our clients as options. If a client has a question about a use case, he will dig in and see how we can do it, what technology we need to serve the client, and figure out where else we may be able to use similar ideas with other clients.

Internally, we are able to have more informed discussions and stay up on the new tools available to us. It helps us keep pushing the envelope and continuing to develop new solutions for clients.

Q: Your clients are clearly having success, as Turner Mining recently announced how they were able to streamline billing and reconciliation. Has it made a bigger impact for management (in terms of the bottom line) or for production (in terms of making people’s job easier)?   

I think the bigger impact is with management. The drone solutions are helping managers make better decisions because they have better information. They are building their understanding of the operation each time they fly (building their business intelligence), and using this to make their decisions.

That said, there is certainly a production impact as well. They don’t have to stop production to get a survey done and it is extremely easy for the operations guys to fly the drone.

Q: At AirWorks 2018, I thought your presentation, “Transform Site Data into Powerful Insights with Drone Technology” was notable for several reasons. Are there any commonalities when it comes to workflow transformations that span a variety of client deliverables which range from point clouds to quarry mapping to aerial ortho images? 

Across all our clients and deliverables, we strive to give clients more than just data. Sometimes, they do just want data, so a point cloud or ortho image isn’t necessarily “transformed” but the general concept is that it across our deliverables to clients we give them more than a number or data. We provide them with confidence and key insights so that they can make critical business decisions.

Q: Your presentation had a whole section titled “Transforming Data into Insights”, and that’s something I want to break down with you. This is a concept I’ve been focused on lately, but it’s often so amorphous. How do you approach getting specific with it in a meaningful way to clients and potential clients? 

I agree that this is a difficult topic. We try to focus on a couple of key things.

First, we focus on how they can use the information that we give them. We like to show some case studies like the Turner Mining Group one, or the general ROI on inventory management. We show clients that what they get from us are insights that they can use, not a tool or way to do analysis themselves.

We also try and show that there are those 4 pieces to the process (data capture, data processing, insights, business intelligence). Often we see clients think that the data processing piece is the end that it is just a number or a picture that they need. We try to cast the vision for what could be if we take it the next two steps.

A great example of the insights instead of just data is that we had a client recently who for the past few years would get one inventory measurement a year and was always taking a huge write-off. For the past 5 quarters they’ve been doing a combination of monthly and quarterly measurements, this year their write-off will be just 1%.

Q: Can you walk us through what it means to go from data capture to business intelligence? What are the biggest challenges that are inherent in this process? 

It all starts with good data. The data collection process and tools are the critical first step.

However, I think where the biggest challenge comes in is that many people stop after getting processed data. They get a basic number or an image and think that is all they can get from a drone solution. So having the expertise and the tools to take it a step further can help get actual insights from the data. We deliver clients key operational metrics that they can then go apply in their business decision-making.

Q: That key insight phase seems especially critical, but the trouble there relates to everyone having or needing to gather a different key insight. How have you been able to help clients shape what kind of insight they should be gathering? As you mentioned during the presentation, it doesn’t make sense to gather this data if it doesn’t lead to a change in process or procedure, does it? 

There are a number of key insights in particular industries, but we agree that especially across industries, everyone needs something different. We like to partner with clients to figure out what will be most useful for them and help them develop what those insights that they need really are.

Turner Mining was a good example of how we helped them shape what they could do with it. We worked with them before drones, but we tapped into some of their key issues around disputes on how much was moved and presented a drone solution to help solve that problem.

Similarly, we worked with landfills to understand the key drivers of their financial success and regulatory restrictions (airspace and density). Then we worked with them to develop the best ways to show those things to them and help them use the deliverable to make better decisions.

Q: What are some examples of the business intelligence you’ve seen companies create/enable/utilize?

Many of those distinctions are spelled out in our Turner Mining case study, but to give you one example, Turner helped themselves and their clients streamline the billing and reconciliation process by using Firmatek’s Drone Solutions. Instead of time consuming and costly disputes about how much volume was moved, they have a recognized third-party number every time.

We’ve seen incredible differences for clients working with or in landfills as well though. When a landfill is closing a cell, they will request frequent deliverables from us, usually monthly. So we help them closely monitor the closing of the cell so that they can get the most value from it. Historically, they would have just gone based on plans and an annual survey. Landfill clients that are closing a cell now take the information we are giving them and they make adjustments to when they will move into the new cell (potentially delaying large capital expenditures) and increasing the life of the landfill.

Q: How do you explain the difference between measurement and management? 

Measurement is the number, often the volume. You certainly have to start here. If you measure it, you can manage it.

In order to manage, you need to bring in more data, and ultimately start making decisions. So first, we bring in information like the types of material. Sometimes we bring in permanent bases to get to a total inventory number. With many clients that are having trouble with their inventories, we walk through the results with them and look for patterns. We help them analyze what the issue might be, so that they can make changes in their operation.

The major difference is that measurement is simply a number. Management requires analysis and decision-making.

Q: When it comes to ROI, we’re talking about a measurable that can vary depending on the company and application, but you mentioned your work with an aggregate company that went from writing off $500K to now only writing down $100K thanks to changing their inventory measurement process from annual to monthly. What can you say about the process this company went through in order to quantify this result?

The quantifying was based on the book value of their inventory vs what the annual measurement said. The more challenging part was what they went through during the year to make sure that their numbers stayed in line. This is where the frequent measurements helped them keep their books in line throughout the year. They didn’t have to have their assumptions compounding upon one another month after month, but rather would have a check and make operational and assumption adjustments on a monthly basis.

Q: How typical of a result do you think this is? Should companies go into a technology adoption process with expectations around percentages and ROI?

I think for many aggregate companies who are measuring only on an annual basis and using assumptions throughout the year, this is a fairly typical result. The degree will vary, but I think most will find significant savings and a high ROI.

I also think that they should consider the ROI of a new technology adoption. We often see clients simply caring about the cost of the technology and not looking at the bigger picture of what they can save if they use it. We all do this to a certain extent when we look to buy something new. However, it is especially prevalent in something like stockpile measurement because of the perception that it is a necessary evil for many as well as a big change. So it’s important to show the value they can get outside of just a stockpile number that they have to turn over to corporate.

Q: If I’m someone that believes drones and the data they gather can create value for my operation, but I have concerns that I’d be able to effectively work through the key insights and business intelligence steps of your process, what would you tell me? 

Firmatek will help you work through that. We aim to be trusted advisors to our clients. So we can offer suggestions on how to use the information and insights most effectively.

It’s not about the Tech: What Matters is Business Intelligence

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It’s not about the drone or the software platform, what really matters is business intelligence.

-Lauren Elmore, President of Firmatek

As drone and related software technology have continued to advance over the last several years, the focus has largely been on those tools. And that’s what they are: tools. There are a wider range of drones that can collect good quality data. Some of them are extremely complex and expensive, and they have a variety of sensors from Lidar to cameras to thermal. Others are fairly inexpensive, and with the right procedures, they get the job done as well. The same is true on the software sides. Some software and software platforms are expensive and include lots of bells and whistles, while others just give basic information.

With so many options, and more every year being developed, how do you choose? Do you choose to buy access to a platform? Do you choose to buy your own drone? Do you outsource it all? Do you internalize it all? Do you do some combination of all these things? What is the best technology to implement? How will you keep up with it?

These are all good questions. But they are missing a key point. Why do you actually want a drone or a software platform? So often we start with the “what” when we really need to start with the “why.” Hopefully, your answer to that involves getting insights and improving your business intelligence. We believe that your ever-changing environments have dramatic impacts on the success of your operation and your ability to make decisions. You need more than just data to improve your operation and make more informed decisions. Having really cool, fancy tools doesn’t actually give you more than data. They are just tools. But something needs to happen after you get information in order for it to actually make a positive impact on your operation and organization.

At Firmatek, we talk a lot about providing insights to our clients. We want to give you more than just another data point. We work with clients to help them understand the data and the insights that they receive from us. Collecting and processing data is getting easier and easier as technology advances, but something still has to be done with that data. We need to take it and turn it into something that you can use. That’s why we do more than give you a volume number. We help you see changes over time, know what you have left in your reserves, and how much inventory you have on the ground.

However, the next step is up to you. You have to take the insights and use them in your business. We have seen clients with the insights to transform their business at their fingertips, yet not use them. One client recently changed behavior from just receiving the insights to putting them to work. He drastically improved his operation by choosing to take the insights we were providing him and use them to improve his level of understanding of the operations and update his decision-making.

This particular client had been writing off around $3 million a year in inventory across his area. While he had been doing some measurement of the inventory – once or twice a year – he had not been doing much management of the inventory. Measurement is just data. Management occurs when you take the data, analyze it, get insights from it, and then apply those insights.

The client started doing more frequent measurements, but more importantly, he started using the insights to increase his business intelligence. Then, he started changing the way he was operating.

He ended up writing off less than $175,000 this year, making the area profitable for the first time in over 10 years.

There’s a difference between measurement and management. Frequent measurements help improve your inventory management, but it is important to apply the insights and make changes to your operation in order to improve profitability. When you do that, you can see impressive improvements in operational efficiencies and profitability.

All these tools that we have today make it much easier to get the insights you need to improve your operational efficiencies and make your operation more profitable. But the tool itself will not solve your problems. You need to get more than data from your tools. You need to use the insights that you receive.

It’s about your business intelligence. It’s about using that business intelligence in your operation. That is what is going to make the difference for you.