September 19, 2019
The debate amongst construction materials companies whether to use traditional surveying tools versus drones for stockpile inventory measurement is over. Drones can measure a sitewide stockpile inventory in less time than it takes a surveyor to set up GPS equipment. The quality of measurements from drones have also skyrocketed putting data fidelity near LiDAR precision. However, one of the major questions companies still face today is whether to build an internal drone program and performs flights themselves or pay a third-party service to handle the data collection. As Maury Margol from our business development team asks, “do you want to buy a lawnmower or pay someone to come cut your grass?”
The answer to this question is more complex than one might think. Depending on your company’s unique situation (for example, your available staff, geographic spread, or proximity to airports, etc.) one choice will make more sense. In this article, we are going to share one company’s unique experience of flying their own drone and eventually transitioning to a third-party service to fly drones for them. We will also explore the factors you need to evaluate before deciding to build your own in-house drone program or have a third-party service fly for you.
Memphis Stone and Gravel started using Stockpile Reports in 2015 in order to switch from costly yearly airplane based measurements to a drone-based measurement solution. Their main motivator was to increase the frequency and accuracy at which they measured inventory in order to remove the risk of painful yearly large inventory adjustments. That same year, they also bought their own drone to complete inventory flights as often as needed.
Memphis Stone and Gravel moved from measuring their 14 sites yearly to monthly measurements. Dave Leverett, the Environmental & Exploration Manager at Memphis Stone & Gravel, was tasked with performing the inventory flights across all 14 sites. He quickly ran into the challenge of measuring multiple sites spread across a large geographic region in one month.“To do 13 or 14 sites, it would occupy a week or two of my time each month,” Leverett says.“There were times I needed to be elsewhere, but I had to get the inventory done.”
Leverett ran into one of the most common issues of managing your own drone: the large amount of travel time between sites. Memphis Stone and Gravel’s 14 sites are spread across a 150-mile area, running North to South around the greater Memphis area. Due to road mileage, traffic, and flying the drone itself, Leverett would only be able to measure a few sites in a day. Completing all 14 sites in a month became an unrealistic goal which forced Memphis Stone & Gravel to move to measuring half of the sites each month.
In 2018, Memphis Stone & Gravel decided to switch from an in-house drone flight program to Stockpile Reports’ drone pilot service. Leverett simply logs in Stockpile Reports website, books flights on dates of his choosing, a certified and insured pilot arrives on-site, completes the flight, and Stockpile Reports processes all the data. Leverett is freed up to focus on his main role at the company as an Environmental and Exploration Manager.
All 14 sites are measured on the same day, reducing the back office work to reconcile inventory from the flight date to the actual end of the month. The non-monetary benefits of using third-party pilots outweighed flying their own drone.
For the full story on Memphis Stone and Gravel’s Journey with Drone Based Measurements, read the original article in Pit and Quarry Magazine.
Memphis Stone & Gravel’ situation is unique. You may have different factors such as fewer sites, more employees available to fly a drone, or a different geographic spread between sites. Stockpile Reports believes there is no one model for every company. However, we will cover the monetary and non-monetary factors you need to weigh before deciding how to best implement drones for your stockpile inventory program.
The price of drones in the past few years has dropped considerably. However, you most likely will need to buy more than just one drone. Expect to buy a drone for each geographic region you are measuring at. Also, each drone should have at least 1 spare battery and a tablet to control the automated flight software. Stockpile Reports standardizes on DJI’s Phantom 4 and Mavic 2 Pro lines of drones. The total cost for each drone kit runs between $2,000 to $2,500.
Flying a drone at your worksite qualifies as commercial drone operations. The FAA requires certification to fly drones commercially. Expect each employee to spend 8-15 hours studying for the FAA’s certification test. Self-study material costs between $10-$20, however, you can accelerate the study process with an online study program or live classes. Online training costs around $300 and live training, which is good for larger groups, will cost $2,000 plus any travel costs.
The certification test costs $150 per pilot and the certificate needs to be renewed every 2 years for $150 per pilot. Drones also need to be registered with the FAA which costs a one time $5 per drone.
Drone insurance is an item that is often overlooked early on when developing an in-house drone program. Drones are relatively inexpensive to replace, however, the damage to persons or property could be significant if something goes wrong. Insurance costs on average $750-$1,000 a drone per year.
Are all of your sites close together? If not, your employees may need to spend the night on the road in order to measure all of your sites. Travel expenses can add up if your sites are far apart. You can either train a second pilot or factor in vehicle mileage, meals, and lodging for an employee to measure sites hundreds of miles apart.
A consideration that Memphis Stone and Gravel did not anticipate when starting their own drone program is the amount of time it would take an employee to measure inventory. For each hour an employee is traveling, flying a drone, and uploading data, it is an hour that an employee is not spending on their main job function. If you have more than 2-3 sites, are you willing to give up multiple days of productivity from an employee who could be working on other high-value tasks?
Is it important that you measure your inventory on a specific date? This may not be possible if you do not have enough pilots to cover your sites in a single day. Memphis Stone and Gravel took 2 weeks to measure all 14 sites. However, Stockpile Reports’ pilots can measure all of your sites on the same day. This may save countless hours of measurement reconciliation at the end of the month.
Several of our clients have run into the situation where their drone pilot either leaves the company or gets promoted and flying the drone is no longer under their list of responsibilities. Unexpected turnover leaves you without a certified drone pilot to measure your month-end inventory. Stockpile Reports’ pilots are always available.
Stockpile Reports believes that each company has a best fit for drone measurements. Flying your own drone is a great option if your sites are located in a small geographic area or you are planning to fly more often than monthly. However, if your sites are hundreds of miles apart or you have more sites than you can fly in a couple of days, Stockpile Reports’ drone service may be the best option. Many clients who have several closely located sites and a few remote sites may opt for a hybrid. A dedicated pilot flies all of the closely located sites and skips and time and expense of traveling to the remote sites.
If you aren’t sure which drone solution is best for your company, please contact us. We would be more than happy to walk you through all of the considerations and options, helping you select the right solution for your company. To contact us, please click here.
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