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.

Wheel & Tape to Drone Solutions: A Recap of Technology Used for Inventory Measurement

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Data Security in Mining and Aggregates: Keep Cybercriminals Locked Out


Think of any major company, and it has probably been a victim of a data breach. David McCandless provides an insightful and interactive map detailing global breaches, hacks and other data disasters spanning the past 13 years across multiple industries. It’s a scary sight to behold.

The mining and aggregates industries haven’t escaped the threat, and it’s easy to see why. Important data concerning politically sensitive agreements, environmental records and studies, and projects in the developmental pipeline are like gold to hackers and the commissioners of their services.

Here’s what site managers should know so they can put together a smarter data security plan.


The Scope

The data experts at Kroll Ontrack define a data breach as having sensitive, proprietary or confidential information “viewed, stolen or used by unauthorized third parties,” resulting in damage to property.

This is precisely what happened to Goldcorp Inc., one of Canada’s biggest mining companies, in April 2016. In the attack, the company had close to 15 GB of data compromised. Payroll information, budget documents, bank account details, employee passport scans and other important data were accessed.

Despite the amount of data compromised, Goldcorp CEO David Garofalo says the extent of the breach was “not of significant concern.” His team was lucky, but others haven’t been quite as fortunate.

One German steel mill was the victim of a cyber attack in December 2014 in which criminals seized control of operational procedures at the mill, thwarting processes and causing “massive damage,” according to a report from the German Federal Office for Information Security.

Pamela Cobb, writing about the incident for Security Intelligence, referred to “sophisticated social engineering and spear-phishing tactics” used to gain access to the mill’s office network. Cobb says the hacking fears portrayed in Hollywood blockbusters are materializing into reality.

And in June 2017, Maersk Group was attacked by cybercriminals, shutting down multiple business units and ships.


Bleak Figures

Looking at the numbers, it’s even worse than the case studies suggest. A PwC report from 2015 showed the rise in global cyberattacks from 3.4 million to 42.8 million between 2009 and 2014. The statistics reveal that more than a third of mining companies are at risk of being attacked.

Of the 35 mining companies surveyed in the report, only three attested to having advanced cybersecurity systems in place. The bulk cited having moderate systems in operation, which are two levels below advanced in terms of robustness. As many as 97 percent of the companies have been affected by malware.

The team at Crowell & Moring cite a report from Ernst & Young around the same time that suggested more than 40 percent of metals and mining companies surveyed had seen a rise in threats. While a 2016/17 report places cybersecurity at nine out of the top ten major risks facing the mining industry. Australian company Telstra’s Cyber Security 2016 issued a report that revealed business-interrupting security breaches were recorded twice as frequently as in 2014.

Part of the problem is the connectivity of new business. With the IoT (Internet of Things), remote access, multiple employee devices and centralized operational networks, the amount of critical data online is massive and growing.

At Computer Weekly, Bob Tarzey writes about four concerns facing IoT devices:

  • protection issues with devices transmitting sensitive data,
  • devices becoming entry points into IT infrastructure,
  • botnets using devices for denial of service (DoS) attacks,
  • and poorly defended IoT deployments.

The logic is simple: The more devices, the easier to get in.

Kevin Hua of AtlasTrend writes at Which-50 about how the IoT “effectively increases the ‘surface area’ available for breaches as more things are connected with each node becoming an entry point for attack.”

Mining and aggregates companies are under threat from a range of prospective cyberattackers, including foreign nation-states, service providers, and even environmental and political activists.

Another worrying source of attack, writes Richard Levick at Fast Company, is the “insider threat.”

Using the Bank of America’s $10 million loss in 2011 as an example, Levick laments how entire organizations can be held to account for one internal malefactor’s criminal acts.

Looming threats and the expansion of the IoT are serious causes for concern. So, what can be done to curb these crimes, and how ready are companies in the mining and aggregates industries to launch a defensive?


Battle Ready

A 2017 report from PwC states that of the 10,000 respondents surveyed from across multiple industries, more than half said “they actively monitor and analyze threat intelligence to help detect risks and incidents.” If mining and aggregates companies are sitting at similar figures, this leaves a big percentage sitting idly, waiting to become targets.

Even for those that are prepared for a cyber onslaught, it is a battle to keep pace with the fast-evolving methods of attack. Slashed IT budgets and inadequate training mean expertise to fight the scourge is limited.

Telstra’s report said 62 percent of organizations cited a lack of experts to implement security strategies. Speaking with Mining Journal, Alan Hindes at Telstra says, “Security budgets were a big issue 18 months ago, but now the challenge is finding talent with the necessary security skills.”

Skills aside, another problem is the delegation of responsibility and decision-making. As migration to the cloud continues with pace, further risks arise. Telstra’s Director of Security, Neil Campbell, dubs this the “shadow IT” problem. Defenses weaken as other branches of an organization incorporate and manage services in the cloud without the necessary security protocols insisted on by IT.

The Telstra report recorded only 22 percent of companies across industries are equipped to deal with the risks involved in cloud-based service adoption. Hindes and Campbell suggest the BYOD (bring your own device) culture as a reason for every organization to treat cybersecurity as if it were a major bank protecting clients’ personal and businesses’ financial information.


A Question of Law

UK solicitor Jowanna Conboye writes how businesses only picked up digital communications in the 90s, and the laws have been even slower keeping pace. The EU’s Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC was passed in 1995 and applied in the UK as the Data Protection Act in 1998.

Change is coming, however. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation 2016 (or GDPR) was passed in 2016 and takes effect in 2018.

The US, the Crowell team writes, has also been proactive. In 2015, President Barack Obama issued an executive order titled ‘Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaging in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities’ after calling cyberthreats a “national emergency.”

This allowed the U.S. Department of the Treasury to freeze assets and bar transactions of entities engaged in cyberattacks.

While the change in laws is essential to deal with this growing threat, it does not mean the process will be easy for mining and aggregates companies. There will be plenty to do to become compliant, as well as there being greater urgency to report data breaches timeously.


How to Stay Safe?

It almost feels counterintuitive given the innate competitiveness in business, but the advice from the experts is to share. An important part of generating awareness of cyberthreats and the means to defend data against them requires sharing intelligence.

The 2017 PwC report notes how sharing data “can provide actionable intelligence that enables organizations to gain visibility into their most relevant risks and more quickly detect and respond to incidents.”

But these processes need to be agile and “ingest data, analyze activity, classify and validate threats, and push alerts — all in real time”.

It’s important to think of cybersecurity as a business risk and cost rather than specifically an IT consideration. It needs to take center stage in budgeting considerations and training programs. Creating awareness among all employees at every level is a fundamental component of basic safety. There also has to be accountability records built into the processes.

Tim Cannon suggests companies invest in education. Writing at Wired about healthcare in particular, thought the lessons apply to all industries, Cannon talks about a “disconnect” in how IT firms hire talent. This leads to employers picking experience over education, which is not a good long-term strategy.

Cannon suggests partnerships with colleges and universities to train the next generation of security experts. Additionally, increased training is essential for existing staff to help bolster defenses.


Response Plan

All organizations need to have a response plan laid out in advance. There is no time to develop a strategy retroactively. The plan needs to include methods for detecting clients and partners who have had data accessed, how much of it has been compromised and how sensitive that data is.

Additionally, the plan needs to lay out how to notify those affected, briefing the press and minimizing damage. Production cannot be halted in the wake of an attack, and user systems and key servers need to be restorable from backups.

Cobb referenced the IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Quarterly as a useful guide in the wake of the attack on the German steel mill. The report suggests organizations perform regular tests, implement secure design and development practices, and follow industry best practices for the IoT, as suggested by the Open Web Application Security Project.

As the IoT continues to integrate deeper into every aspect of modern life, we all become more connected. In many ways, this streamlines business processes and facilitates global cooperation. The downside is the remote reach of criminals lurking in cyber shadows ready to steal data, compromise security and disrupt operations.

Proper training of staff, good cyberhygiene and robust defense systems are essential to keep mining and aggregates companies safe. Should these defenses fail, they’ll need a fast-moving reaction plan to mitigate damage and keep up production.

Images by: Joshua Sortino, Koushik C, Markus Spiske