A comparison of survey methods for Suncor’s oil sands mine

At the Trimble Dimensions conference in 2014 Suncor and PhotoSat presented the results of Suncor’s use of our satellite surveying for their Tailings Reduction Operation (TRO) at their oil sands mine in Northern Alberta. The mapping area is about 271 km2.

The full conference presentation PDF can be seen here.

suncor tailings areas

Suncor’s tailings: 50cm WorldView satellite photo                                         1m elevation image

 

In 2012, Suncor’s survey department was given the challenge to do monthly topographic surveys of all TRO cells. They tried surveying with GPS equipment, however less than 20% of the area was safely accessible by ground crews. Suncor also tried 3D scanners but found them very slow, requiring multiple set-ups and the data was sparse. They had previously tried airborne LiDAR but found the point clouds to be prohibitively large, and the data delivery to be frustratingly slow.

In 2013, the engineers at Suncor knew they were in need of a surveying method that would have high accuracy, fast delivery, and improve safety for field crews. PhotoSat stepped in to produce engineering quality elevation mapping from satellite photos quickly and safely. Stereo satellite photos were collected over the mine site, providing a snapshot of the entire site every two weeks. Highly accurate elevation data was then produced from the stereo photos using our unique geophysical processing technology.

We provided Suncor’s team with the satellite survey data within 5 days of the satellite photo acquisition to use at their biweekly planning meetings.

Elevation image differences

Elevation image: January 20                                                           Elevation image: February 23

Many features visible in the January 20 topography were buried by tailings by February 23.

Oil sands sand dump with contours

50cm tailings lift thickness contours: Jan 20 to Feb 23

 

During the presentation, Suncor also discussed the advantages of the customization available with our data. For example, PhotoSat provides Suncor with data in their local mine grid coordinate system. Also, we provided a ‘thinned’ version of the elevation grid, which reduces the density of point clouds in flat areas without degrading the quality and accuracy.

Taking all this into account, since 2013 Suncor has switched to satellite surveying as their main surveying method for their TRO Operation. We have been surveying this area about every 2 weeks since 2013, and continue to at the time of this post.

 

Suncor still uses GPS equipment for surveys of some areas of the mine, but for all the non accessible areas PhotoSat’s satellite mapping is the preferred method. The high resolution elevation data is also used for the tailings pond beaches, as well as mine pit advance and overburden dumps. One of the great features is that the satellite surveying is used by a variety of groups, including Tailings Engineers, Geotechs, and Production Planning.

For the full story, view or download the conference presentation PDF here.

In later posts we’ll look at how Suncor has adopted satellite surveying for mapping mature fine tailings cells, as well as mine site toes and crests.

If you have any questions feel free to contact us at 604-681-9770 or info@photosat.ca.

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