Phantoms in Alaska

When I’m not flying helicopters, or travelling the world, or kicking back at home with my family I’m running my own drone consulting company, Global Mining Unmanned. The work with drones takes me all over the world, and this past week was all about the drone business and a pair of Phantom 4 RTK’s in the far interior of Alaska.

When the distinct buzz of a new email setting off the notification alert on my phone went off in my pocket I didn’t think much of it – I never really do. Recently I’ve come to the really comforting realization that nothing being emailed to me is so important that I ever have to stop what I’m doing to check it. In fact, these days my phone almost always lives on silent mode or vibrate, because I prefer life as it happens in front of me, and not on a screen. My fiance’ might challenge that assertion a little bit, since I’m always taking pictures, but outside of the camera – my phone is quickly becoming obsolete.

A Familiar Name, A Familiar Place

Later that evening I swiped open my phone to run through the nightly download of everyone else’s day before climbing into bed. The usual routine is a quick scroll through Facebook, a bunch of time on Instagram (my preferred social network these days), and then of course checking emails and news. When I saw an email from a family friend and coworker of my fathers though, I paused. I hadn’t known he had left the project in South America, and he had never been my contact there for drone work – yet sure enough the subject line read something like “Information on Drones”.

I thought to myself that perhaps he was looking for a personal drone, a lot of the people I work with and train wind up getting their own personal drones through me too. When I clicked the email open what I found was a new opportunity, a new client, and an exciting new challenge. I came alive, my eyes focused on his questions, looking for the project needs and wants – I was already building a bespoke solution in my head. That was, after all, what I do.

The project needs were fairly simple, they needed two drones and would be using them to complete extensive aerial mapping and survey work ahead of their drilling program, construction, and so on. They wanted to minimize the amount of ground control points needed and reduce the amount of people needed to complete a survey, while also increasing the quality of the products. They were looking for contour lines, 3D point clouds, and orthomosaic maps. There were other ancillary needs related to battery life, cost, delivery time frame, etc. The details of which would be sorted out over the coming weeks.

A Unique Challenge

The drone I ultimately decided on, that would be a best fit for the project, was the relatively new Phantom 4 RTK. RTK stands for “real time kinematics” and is a really, extremely, highly accurate way of taking coordinates and referencing them to images. The “challenge” part of this project was that not only were the Phantom 4’s new and rare in the field, they were expensive – to the point of being cost prohibitive for me to buy one on my own. Besides, mapping and survey isn’t what I do – I’m a consultant and can’t paint myself into a corner like that. So, these drones being new, rare, and expensive meant that I had never seen or handled one in person. I had to become, in a matter of weeks, a subject matter expert on a product I had never handled, in order to not only successfully deliver the drones, but to also be able to train others on how to use them.

Phantoms in Alaska

In what really felt like no time at all we went from initial contact, to bid and scope-of-work, to orders and had finally delivery. I had the drones, the RTK base stations, tripods, hard cases, memory cards, cables, batteries, everything — in my garage and ready to go. Once everything was condensed down into the purpose-cut foam lined hard case, I was off to the airport with a ton of gear in tow.

The trip itself was an adventure too, in that from Spokane’s International Airport I flew to Seattle and onward to Anchorage – it was from there that I boarded a cargo PC-12 Pilatus and flew up into the Interior for a landing on a dirt strip runway. Keep in mind that all of this time I had two hard cases for the Phantoms and their components, two large survey grade tripods in their boxes, and two RTK base stations from DJI in their boxes too; oh and my personal bag. Not exactly travelling light.

Not exactly travelling “light”

From here on out things got fairly routine. Delivery typically starts with a full layout and inventory, orientation to what each item is and does, and then over the next week to two weeks the training program starts. I teach from the “Ground up”, a carry over from my days as a Helicopter Flight Instructor. We do concepts and theory, systems and maintenance, assembly and disassembly, all before taking to the sky. As training progresses the one-on-one practical application (flying) begins. In this instance I also had to train them on a new DJI software specific to the RTK, teach them how to program flights, collect data and then also render in Pix4D the products they needed. It was a non-stop, 15 hours a day, cycle. Good thing the sun doesn’t set in Alaska in the summer.

Time for the photos. The trip went great, and the client was beyond happy with the delivery and training. Enjoy a look behind the scenes of Global Mining Unmanned.

Published by wanderingnick208

Nick Henderson is an FAA rated commercial pilot, world traveler, blogger, podcaster, photographer, and all-around good guy. His love of travel, adventure, food, and fun has taken him around the world and back again.

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