Marc: Hi everyone and welcome to this episode of the Bounce podcast. A podcast that looks at everything related to commercially using drones indoors.
Today we are with Eric Romersa. Eric is the co-founder of WS Data 3D, a company based in Santiago de Chile. Eric, you originally come from Canton of Vaud in Switzerland where you studied an MBA in HEC Lausanne. You started your career with SGS for a few years and then you moved to Chile in 1997 where you've been working mostly in business development in the energy industry, agribusiness and consulting. Thank you for being with us and welcome.
Eric Romersa: Thank you.
Marc: Eric, what brought you to Chile in the first place? How did you end up in the drone business?
Eric: Well, Chile despite being a relatively small economy, it's an export-oriented, open to the world, very dynamic and open to entrepreneurship. I saw there are good opportunity to bring new technologies in a very competitive sector, especially agribusiness and mining. Well, last but not least my wife is from Chile. Maybe it helps a little bit.
Marc: What brought you to the drone business?
Eric: Well, basically I always keep links with Switzerland and with what is going on. I am always following the new technological developments that are taking place in the EPFL. Some years ago appeared all these new wave of startups in the EPFL. My attention was brought to the fixed wing drone that had an auto pilot and a photogrammetry software that looked quite amazing. Both companies are now famous in the ecosystem of the EPFL namely, the senseFly and Pix4D.
We contacted them, asked them to come to Chile and test their software and drone in the mining environment, which is at high altitude with the strong winds. It was quite challenging I guess for them. They came, even one of the co-founders of Pix4D was there also and we had very promising results in those conditions. Therefore, we decided to start offering services to the mining industry with drones and photogrammetry. This was four years ago. We were pioneers in this field at the time.
Marc: That's an interesting start. You're obviously using drones in your business that sounds like a daily task for you. You mentioned that you started with a senseFly and Pix4D, what kind of platform are you flying today? Is your focus still on these platforms or are there any other drones that you're using?
Eric: Sure, well so far senseFly drone is still in the fixed wing drone industry, one of the best in the market. We still use them quite a lot. We have been using even both drones to make bathymetry and to calculate water volumes in the tailing dams. Since the beginning of the year, we've been using Elios to make inspections in confined spaces, in concentration plants in the mines and this has been very successful because we've seen a lot of good results with this new drone.
Marc: Concentration plans, if I'm right is the downstream part of the exploitation of a mine. You say you've been using Elios in that kind of environments? What are the challenges that you've been trying to solve with this drone? Was there any particular objective that you had in mind with Elios?
Eric: Yes, there are several objectives. These concentration plants where you transform the stones in copper concentrate basically when you talk about copper, is that you have to inspect very big and dangerous equipment for people to inspect. Far the only way to inspect those big facilities or the big machines basically, mills, SAG mills, ball mills I was to stop the mill, open the mill and have someone entering the mill taking some risk because you can have also pieces of metal, of stones, whatever falling from the ceiling of the mill.
It was quite dangerous and hazardous activity for the workers. With Elios, we've been able to make these inspections without exposing people to risk and dangers. We've been able to save a lot of time for our customers in the sense that now, we can inspect those facilities without making any blocking, upstream and downstream, which saves more than, let's say, between one hour and a half and two hours.
Now, our customers can inspect one specific situation in 30 minutes when before, it was about more than two hours exposing workers to dangerous situations, at risk. That has been a very high-value benefit for our customers.
Marc: Yes, I can imagine. You see, the entire processing chain had to be blocked obviously to avoid the risk of turning on equipment when somebody is inside inspecting. There is an obvious safety reason behind that. You also said that you're saving time. Do you have any guess about the loss of revenue that two or three hours of downtime would represent for a such a massive exploitation?
Eric: I don't know. Miners don't want to be very public on this kind of figures but I will estimate that one hour of production is worth, let's say, between $70,000 and $100,000. The return on investment of a drone is quite safe, by the way.
Marc: You mentioned that you've been using Elios, I guess it is particularly helpful for that kind of environment. Can you explain what it brings compared to other drones that you may have thought of using at some point?
Eric: Well, actually, it's the only one that really can go into confined spaces. It can use the structure as a support to just move into the confined space, now the drone does it. Up to now, you have to take small drones and be very careful not to hit the walls or the structure with the propellers, which if you hit a propeller with some structure, it was a disaster. You will lose the job.
The Elios has the advantage. You have a 360 degrees view at one point. You can stop and stand still in one position, and then you can fly in different positions to see what are the different conditions you are monitoring. Really, at this time, I think it's by far the best solution.
Marc: Was there any specific trigger that brought you to think that there is confined spaces in mining and this technology we could apply? Is there any reason why you started using the Elios?
Eric: Well, you have to always be listening to your customers. I had heard about Elios, let's say, about one, one and a half year ago, but I have to wait and see the right opportunity to offer the Elios because you have to be at the right time, at the right place, with the right person to offer it. That's what we waited for and at this point, we did offer the solution. First, we offer the test to prove to our customers that the solution was worth it. It proved to be worth it. Everybody was happy about it.
Marc: One of the biggest challenge when you use drone is making sense of data and using them. We know that as an inspection company, the report that you provide to your customer after an inspection is your highest added value. My question to you is, how do you organize this data that you collect? Is there any challenge in this part of the work? Are you using any specific tool to do that and to help you?
Eric: You're right. Now drones are common everywhere. Now, your kid can buy a drone almost in the supermarket. Everybody flies drones, but the important thing is how to interpret the data, how to analyze it, and how to present it to our customers in a way that they will use it. In this respect, our added value is basically analyzing the data and presenting it to the customer.
In this respect, at this point, we make very precise reports focusing on what are the specific client needs. We are developing now a web platform in order to have some kind of a one-click solution in the sense that anybody who is allowed by the customers to access this platform will have an immediate access to the inspections that have incurred in time, to try the possibility of the equipment in the last year or the last period when it was inspected. The customer can analyze how the component will behave in the next few months and comparing it how it has behaved in the last two months.
Marc: You mentioned being able to trace the health of an equipment through time and space, is that correct?
Eric: Yes, absolutely. The idea is that you identify each piece of equipment the customer wants to inspect. The customer has a list of all his equipment, he just enters the database, and then in this specific equipment, he can see what are the components he wants to see. That can be linked to whatever database he has or he is using, even- well, we're talking about IOT a lot- even the customer with the special glasses can see the equipment and have access to the database where we have all the images that were taken by the drone in the last few months, something like that.
Marc: That brings us into the future and gives us an idea of somewhat how the ultimate tool would look like, but we still have to create it, of course. We know that deploying drones at large scale in a company is a real challenge. Obviously, your business is not a large international corporation, but you're dealing with some of the major mining companies in the world and you help them integrate drones in their daily operations. Can you tell us a little bit more about the challenges that you're solving with your customers, and if there is any big challenge when integrating drones in the workflows of a large company?
Eric: Yes, sure. Let's say in the predictive maintenance, the customer wants to evaluate what he has to change before the problem occurs. Drones is a good tool to do that. However, our customer business is to extract minerals not to fly drones. Basically, because they are organized in a way that they don't have the people to be focused on flying drones and to organize informations gathered by the drones. That's where we assist our customers.
Our customer usually wants to have a drone on its own to have it available 24/7, anytime, any hour, any day if he has something weird happening somewhere, but then we'll have to inspect all his facilities to make predictive monitoring. Then we support him with our staff, with our equipment in order to build a complete package of a predictive maintenance plan.
Marc: It's not only you coming with your drone on site but it's also your customer having their own drones and you--??
Eric: Yes, and we bring support for them. We train their people to use them. But as big companies, they have a lot of turn-over of staffs. Staff change positions all the time. The ones you have trained two weeks ago, in two more months, they won't be there anymore. You have to train some more people on. You have to continue keeping the structure alive because if you just leave it like that, in six months, the drone will be locked somewhere and nobody would be using it.
Marc: That's great. I predict some good business for you. I have a last question for you. What would be your main advice to companies such as a large mining corporation that wants to start integrating drones in their workflow? What would be the key things they have to think about right from the start?
Eric: The first thing is that, people when they see drones, it seems so easy that everybody says, "We can do it ourselves," but we have seen in all the cases that has happened, that after, let's say, three or four months, they are not able to do it because the drone has already crashed or whatever because they are not focused on the operation of the drone. I think everybody has to rely on an expert company who really can operate drones and knows how to extract the data from the drones and give the analysis of the data that will bring them real added value.
It's very easy to be attracted by a drone because it seems so easy and this kind of things but at the end, it's not that easy because you have very quickly a lot of data that you have to organize. This data is the real value, and the real value of this data is to make it available to the people who will really use it and need it, and the big organizations who have their own business they will need to have a whole parallel organization to do that.
Either maybe small organization to do that but they need something to carry on and to just take care of this data, all this fly activity and so on, and is not their business. I think the best thing is to rely on people who are experts on that or to rely on the consulting of someone who can help them to build such a structure within their company.
Marc: Excellent. At least for those based around Santiago De Chile or across you country, they know that they can reach out to Eric Romersa from WSDATA3D. Eric thank you for being with us today and for all the insight on using drones in confined spaces in the mining industry. We wish you a safe trip back to Chile and plenty of successful business and fun flying drones. Thank you very much.
Eric: Thank you to you.