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.

The Women of Firmatek and Their Industry Involvement

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As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we want to reflect on the purpose this designated recognition serves in our society. March is a month to appropriately honor and recognize the value that women create in the workplace and in our communities. At Firmatek, we see the importance in recognizing the role each employee plays in our continuing success, and this month, we want to highlight the women of Firmatek.

Firmatek provides a lot of services in male-dominated industries, such as Mining, Construction, and Technology. Despite the unique challenges that women face in male-dominated industries, many women are thriving in these fields.  The women of Firmatek are no exception.

While stats for our industry may not be great, for example less than 6 percent of FAA certified drone pilots are women and less than 10 percent of the construction industry is made up of women, there are a few organizations working to increase the number of women in our industries and celebrate our successes. Women Who Drone and International Women in Mining are two examples. For our part, we were excited to welcome four new women to our operations and sales teams recently. These women bring great experience and new perspectives to our team.

Here’s what they have to say about why they are excited to be a part of Firmatek and working in the industries we serve:

Kate Steger, Business Development Representative

“Working in a male-dominated industry, it is great to work with so many other hard-working women within the company. Firmatek does a great job allowing every one of our voices to be heard in order to help continuously improve our processes and overall structure. As we continue to expand our markets and expertise, I am proud to tell clients who I represent, what we’re doing, and where we are headed.”

 

Sarah Olivares, Geospatial Data Processor

“I look forward to coming into work every day because I know the value of what we are accomplishing as a team. It’s my first time working in this specific industry. Prior to this, I was in construction. It’s nice to see where our materials come from and how important it is to know how much is going in and out. Being a part of a company that efficiently aids in that knowledge process is personally satisfying.”

 

Ashely Arnold, Geospatial Field Technician

“What I love about getting to work for Firmatek is that it provides me with a sense of freedom that I have not gotten in any other job or opportunity.”

 

 

 

Erin Jean, Geospatial Field Technician

“I enjoy working at Firmatek because of the people. Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming. Working in this industry is great because every day is something new— whether it is being in a new place, facing new problems, or learning new technologies. Being a woman in this field proves difficult in many ways, so overcoming every obstacle becomes that much more rewarding.”

 

Kelli Kersey, Office Manager

“Working in this industry is amazing because of all the new techniques and new technology that has evolved since I started in this business 15 years ago. The people at Firmatek are so fun that you can’t help but love working here.”

 

By building communities within our companies and our  industries, we can get more women excited about careers in Mining, Engineering, Construction, and Drones.  Women in our industry can also become the role models and inspiration for the next generation. We can encourage them to follow their passions and jump into STEM careers, like mine planning and drone piloting. You can read about some of the inspirational women doing this today on Women and Drones.

We come from diverse backgrounds, and we play different roles in the company, but we all love the work we do and are excited to be a part of this industry. The women of Firmatek play an important part in the success of Firmatek, and we are glad that they have chosen to share their talents with us!

Main image by Guinn Partners.

 

Blog Series: What’s Your Why, Lauren Elmore

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By Lauren Elmore, President of Firmatek.

We all have something that drives us, as individuals and as companies. Knowing our why drives our decision-making and helps us live fulfilled lives. It helps us be our best selves. It helps us communicate to clients, to our families, and our communities, the reasons behind our actions. A purpose helps us make decisions about what to do and what not to do.

Many of you have probably seen Simon Sinek’s, Start with Why Ted Talk where he explains the Golden Circle. I love it because it is a really simple way to show why having a “why” is so important. While it is focused on companies and what drives decision making, the same is true for individuals. We need to be able to know and communicate our why, and ultimately our purpose.

We are at our best when we are living and working within that purpose.

At Firmatek, we are focusing on our purpose a lot this year. Why do we exist in this industry that is constantly getting flooded with new technology and new competition? Where is our place in it? What do we believe? We believe that our client’s ever-changing environments has a dramatic impact on their operational success and can make decision-making difficult. We are here to provide our clients with insights and confidence that will help them improve their operational efficiencies. We are here to support our clients so that they can make decisions that keep our world moving forward.

As we begin to focus on company purpose, it is also important to understand how each one of us fits into that. At Firmatek, I want to be focused on not just our company “why” but on how each one of us contributes to the organization and the company purpose by knowing our own unique why. I believe Firmatek, and all companies, are better off when each of us is living our why.

While some peoples’ why might be around our industry or technology, for most of us at Firmatek, it’s not. I strongly believe in the clients we serve and the technology we use to do it. We really couldn’t live without them and it is a joy to be able to serve them. But mining, solid waste, construction, and drones are not my unique purpose.

My purpose statement is a work in progress, and I think will continue to be reworked over the years. However, I’m confident in its core ideas. My purpose is to lead others into the arenas of life, and together build fulfilled lives. I’m passionate about building teams and organizations. It’s one of my favorite things to think about and create – how do we build this organization or this team? How can I provide the structures and environment to do that?

And this is what I get to do on a daily basis. It doesn’t specifically have anything to do with mining or mapping or data analysis or drones or really anything that Firmatek provides its clients. It does specifically relate to my role as President, my role in my family, and my role with other organizations that I engage with.

Each and every day, I have the opportunity to think about how we are building Firmatek and how we are creating an organization that is living its purpose, and hopefully where our people can find and live their own purpose.

Everyone has their own purpose that they need to find and fulfill. My passion is building organizations and partnerships where we can do that together. Where we can not only do business together, but also build fulfilled lives together.

So… What’s Your Why?

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.