Basin Electric's use of drones improves efficiency and safety while reducing costs

Basin Electric’s use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, commonly referred to as “drones,” is extensive. From maintaining transmission lines to measuring volumetric surveys for coal, ash landfills, limestone, and spoil piles, the use of drones not only makes lives easier but improves safety for many departments at Basin Electric, Dakota Gasification Company, and Montana Limestone Company.

Aerial photos without an airplane
For the past five years, Greg Wheeler, Basin Electric senior audio/visual producer, has been using drones to capture images and video at Basin Electric and Dakota Gasification Company facilities and nearby mines.

Prior to the use of drones, aerial photos could only be taken by going up in an airplane, which required the additional expenses of pilots, fuel, aircraft hours, and maintenance. Today, the use of drones has allowed the communications team to shoot aerial photo and video content for member cooperatives, as well and has been used for aerial inspections at several Basin Electric facilities.

Designing ‘blasts’ at the limestone quarry
Jacob Dow, engineer II with Basin Electric subsidiary Dakota Coal Company, says drones are the starting point of the drilling and blasting process at Basin Electric subsidiary Montana Limestone Company. “The drone I use is the same type of drone that anyone could purchase online or at a big box electronics store, but it plays an important role in mining,” he says.

Dow says the process starts by setting up four targets (by hand) on the ground of the limestone quarry, then with a GPS rover, obtaining the coordinates of the targets before firing up the drone. The flight parameters are then selected on an app on an iPad and the drone takes to the air where it can go into an autopilot mode, flying autonomously and taking 200-plus images. The images are downloaded into a software program that creates and calibrates a 3-D model of the ground that is accurate to within a half-inch.

The model is used to design a blast for the drillers and blasters. “They need to know how heavy to fill the boreholes with explosives on each specific hole that’s drilled based on how much overburden exists at any given point in the rock,” Dow says. “It’s important to know how much powder to use so we minimize the risk of flying rock during a blast, as well as maximizing fragmentation. The drone has been a huge help for safety.”

Dow says that before the use of drones, engineers had to use tape measures and could easily be off by 10 feet due to not being able to accurately measure off the face of rock. Surveyor-type tools were used to create models, as well. “The older technology that was used for blasting didn’t get nearly as much data, was significantly more expensive, and took much longer to obtain blast face measurements. With a drone, we can get massive amounts of data in one hour,” he says.

Coming soon: Drone surveying
Robert Kohler is Basin Electric’s only registered land surveyor and is certified in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming. While the engineering and construction team does not own or operate a drone at this time, Kohler says they have one budgeted in the next year or two. 

In the past, engineering and construction used subcontractors to capture and process raw aerial data into finished surfaces, then compared the data to surfaces created using conventional survey techniques. Kohler says the volume differences were noticeable. 

Using a drone might seem like a good way to save time and make Kohler’s job easier, but that’s not always the case. “Would a drone make my job easier? Yes and no. Drones are a great tool to capture a lot of data, but processing that data takes two or three days, and we don’t always have that much time,” Kohler says.

But while processing data might take more time than Kohler would like, the actual time it takes to conduct surveys in the field could be cut in half. Kohler currently uses all-terrain vehicles with GPS receivers to survey the coal stockpiles, and it takes his team members about five hours in the field to collect the measurements. With a drone, they could fly over Laramie River Station’s entire 40-acre plot in about an hour, if the weather cooperates.

And, a drone would have significant safety benefits as well. Not having to perform surveys of the coal piles while physically on the coal piles would be “fantastic” for safety, Kohler says. When at the Laramie River Station’s coal stockpile and ash landfill, for example, they have to drive around on uneven terrain alongside heavy equipment. “That can be a hassle,” he says. “Everyone has to be on the same page and keep an eye out for each other.”

The road, or flight, forward
“Drones can be very useful tools in many situations, but some see them as toys while the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] views them as actual aircraft, just like the airplanes in Basin Electric’s hangar,” says Mark Scheele, Basin Electric’s chief pilot. “If people don’t take them seriously or take the time to learn the rules, it not only opens individuals and companies up to enforcement action by the FAA, but it puts the safety of the whole aviation system at risk. I’ve heard too many stories of people buying a drone online or at a local store and doing illegal and dangerous things with them because they don’t understand the national airspace system.” 

Wheeler, Dow, Kohler, and Scheele are all licensed to fly drones for commercial use, which requires them to take an FAA exam every two years to help them stay up to date on new flight knowledge, safe spots to fly, and what areas they need to get permission from the FAA to fly drones.

With Basin Electric’s increasing use of drones, the cooperative is developing procedures so there are clear guidelines to follow. In order to do this, a task force led by the cooperative’s pilots has been created to develop these procedures.

“While drones have been used at Basin Electric for some time, until now it has been left up to individual departments to make sure they are operating correctly,” Scheele says. “We are now starting the process of creating an oversight program for the whole cooperative to make sure any department that wants to operate drones does so legally and safely.”