Measure Twice, Cut Once: The Importance of Satellite Surveying in Mine Site Planning and Construction

Oil sands elevation map with 50cm contours

Tailings elevation map with 50cm contours

Keeping a mine safe, profitable and compliant with legislation means frequent, accurate surveying. Planning begins with exploration and identification of likely sites, and particularly in oil and gas projects this can result in delays and false starts. Traditional methods of identifying potential sites suffer from major shortfalls, including the challenges of surveying large areas with traditional methods. The gap between geologists’ opinions and test drilling with a high likelihood of success has never been adequately filled, resulting in continuing requirements for multiple overlapping exploration techniques including exploratory drilling and ground-based surveying.

Mine site planning and construction has surveying needs that no other project matches. Like any engineering project mine site construction requires accurate surveying, but few other large engineering projects are built in hostile, difficult to reach terrain. And few others change so much or so fast. The fundamental fact about a mine is that it is dynamic – it alters the landscape and has to change itself too. That’s true of deep underground mining, open cast, leach mining and every other kind of mine operation.

Surveying Challenges

This presents surveying challenges. Mine sites are typically more remote than other engineering sites: the typical engineering project expands or connects to some built environment, while mines are usually in isolated places far from cities and infrastructure, meaning that they often require their own infrastructure. They’re often in rugged terrain too, or in climatic conditions that make surveying more difficult, such as the mountains of Argentina, the Australian outback, or the Arctic.

All of this means that mine surveying often can’t be done well with traditional tools. Even using modern on-the-ground tools like LiDAR and GPS, survey teams still need to travel to inhospitable terrain and map the site in weather that can range from uncomfortable to downright dangerous.

Then there’s the issue of changes to the mine site. While many of these occur underground in tunnel mines, even these produce significant amounts of waste rock. And larger open pit mines produce both overburden and (usually) tailings which must be monitored. Neither GPS nor LiDAR is usually fast enough to provide mine operators with monthly updates that allow monitoring and ongoing tailings planning and control. This is going to become a bigger issue over the next couple of years, post-Brazil.

So what about drones? Drone technology is in its infancy, so it’s likely to improve. Camera-carrying, real-time streaming drones are available to consumers for almost pocket-money prices; professional models can fly for hours and provide images of remote areas without risking human operators. Surely they can offer a solution?

Drones can do that. But they’re dependent on weather: just as much as larger aircraft, they can’t fly in high winds or see through clouds. They also require an on-site operator. Drones can do things a survey team can’t, like overflying tailings ponds, and they’re increasingly being offered as a solution to a mining industry that has more need for accurate, timely surveying than ever before – and less spare cash than before to spend on it. But they can’t provide the consistency and climate resistance that some mines require.

So far we’ve talked about surveying itself: gathering data. But the majority of data gathered, whether by ground or airborne LiDAR, GPS, drone overfly, or any other method, is just that: data, not information. Translating it into 3D models that resemble what’s happening on the ground and tells observers something they didn’t already know is a time-consuming, computer power-eating process. The acquisition and processing speeds, taken together, simply don’t match up to the pace of decision making that modern mining requires.

Satellite Surveying to the Rescue

All, that is, apart from satellite mapping. Satellites are unaffected by remoteness and inhospitable terrain. They’re definitely out of danger; whole mine sites can be imaged from space in one shot, including those areas where it would simply be impossible to send a survey team. And the accuracy of PhotoSat’s satellite elevation data is unparallelled: we deliver 30cm accuracy for mine site mapping, for instance.

More telling yet is the availability of the information. In contrast to processing times measured in weeks, PhotoSat uses a proprietary technology based on seismic survey data processing tools to drastically cut the time between data acquisition and final deliverables. For example, we map one of Suncor’s mine sites biweekly and deliver within just five days in order to meet their planning meeting deadlines.

PhotoSat’s proprietary image processing tech can be adapted to specific client needs too. For instance, our contract with Suncor involves using a mixture of high and low resolution elevation grids, depending on where the imagery is used and taken. We use high resolution data to map Suncor’s mature fine tailings pond, overburden dump, and mine pit advance to an accuracy of 15cm elevation or more. One result of this approach is that the same images can be used by multiple departments – PhotoSat derived images are passed along to Suncor’s Tailings Engineers, Geotechs and Production Planning departments.

Well sites in Alberta

Well sites in Alberta

During an unrelated project for producing SAGD well sites in Alberta, PhotoSat was able to identify 70 well sites, resulting in a total project cost of $12,000 – just $170 per well – during a project that lasted from initiation on January 30, 2015 through image acquisition on February 4th to processing completion on February 6, 2015. The accuracy of the well head locations we provided were within 11cm RMSE, as compared to Government of Alberta certified RTK surveying. We were able to provide 50cm contours and a 1m elevation grid over potential well pad areas without needing exploratory drilling, and without a single boot on the ground or drone in the air.

To learn more about PhotoSat’s revolutionary satellite topography system and what it can do for your business, contact us at info@photosat.ca or 604-681-9770.

Reconciling Inconsistent Survey Datasets

We often hear from our clients that one of their biggest challenges with existing survey data is the lack of consistency between datasets. On oil and gas projects there is often hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in survey data that the engineers have little confidence in. The Drilling, Completions, and Facilities Engineers often find mismatches and different accuracies amongst location datasets.

The type of survey data in question comes in many forms – from GPS, theodolite surveys, as-built location drawings, and other surface location data. With so many data sources, it’s not surprising that there are inconsistencies and therefore frustrations for the project engineers.

What all people working on the project need is one reliable dataset as a base. We have worked with oil and gas companies to develop a system for matching surface engineering datasets to our high accuracy elevation surveys and precision satellite photos.

PhotoSat then provides a reliable and coherent package of surface location data including a 1m elevation grid (DEM), accurate to within 20cm vertically. This engineering quality satellite survey data can then be used by the engineers for all future project work.

Mismatched survey datasets

 

Other benefits of having high accuracy satellite survey data:

  • Reduce ground crews needed for surface scouting and site surveying, which reduces costs.
  • Streamline well pad selection and engineering projects for facilities.
  • Accurate cut and fill volume estimates.
  • Use the data for other applications like pipeline and access road route planning, and seismic survey planning.

 

How does reconciling survey data work?

First we produce our 20cm accuracy elevation mapping package from high resolution stereo satellite photos.

The data package includes:

  • 1m bare earth elevation grid accurate to 20cm
  • 1m (or 50cm) contours
  • 50cm precision satellite photo

Then we figure out the relative match between the mismatched engineering datasets that you provide, and our detailed satellite survey. When we determine the data inconsistencies, we work with your team to choose a reference dataset and shift the other datasets horizontally and vertically to match to it. Our system typically results in the final datasets all matching to within 10cm vertically and 25cm horizontally.

In the end we provide you with your original survey engineering data, but now adjusted and verified and therefore reliable. You also receive our elevation mapping package as described above, and usually within about 8 days of the satellite photo collection. Clients then have a coherent suite of surface location data that can be used for future engineering tasks on the project. Our clients tell us having this trust in the data is very valuable, making decisions easier and shortening project timelines.

We completed a case study on reconciling surface data that you can view here for a detailed example.

If you’d like more information on this product or our other mapping services, feel free to contact us at info@photosat.ca or 604-681-9770.

Suncor mature fine tailings

Canadian Mining Association Adopts New Tailings Recommendations

The Canadian Mining Association has agreed to implement a new set of guidelines aimed at improving tailings storage practices. In the wake of the Mount Polley incident, Canada’s principal mining industry group has agreed to adopt a raft of new waste management policies.

Tailings have been in the news recently following several major spillages, and the industry is responding by tightening up codes of practice to ensure better waste management becomes the norm.

Following Mount Polley, when mining waste was accidentally released into Canadian lakes and rivers, an independent review was commissioned by the B.C. government. The Chief Inspector of Mines weighed in, finding that geological features under the dam including a layer of clay weren’t taken into account at the design stage. The CIM found that while mining operations there didn’t break any laws or regulations, they didn’t meet best practices either. In response, the Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennet announced in 2014, the government planned new regulations that would make British Columbia a world leader in tailings storage.

The government-commissioned review, completed in January last year, recommended that all mining companies operating in the region should abide by the MAC’s code of best practice: in response the MAC organized its own independent review, seeking to improve that code.

The raft of 29 recommendations will extend tailings policy in both directions – up and in, to the heart of mining companies with tailings ponds or storage, and out to the communities nearby. MAC chief executive officer Pierre Gratton said in December, ‘Everyone of these recommendations, if it’s going to reduce the incidents, we want to implement as quickly as possible.’

Communities who may be affected by tailings incidents are to be involved in accident response planning and training, reflecting increased recognition within the industry of local communities as stakeholders in the industry. Meanwhile responsibility for signing off on tailings measures will be taken into the C-suite, effectively making the core of the company responsible for tailings.

Other measures recommended by the government review include the phased introduction of Best available Technologies, an increased role for tailings review boards and expanded corporate design commitments.

Satellite Surveying for Improved Tailings Monitoring

PhotoSat has extensive experience mapping tailings areas to help improve monitoring and management. We have been providing 20cm accuracy satellite surveying for Suncor’s Millennium Mine about twice a month since 2013, after they compared our mapping to alternative methods. The engineers at Suncor use our elevation data (DEM) for most of the mapping and surveying of their Tailings Reduction Operation. They also use it to help reduce their Mature Fine Tailings inventory.

Satellite ortho photo and PhotoSat elevation image of Suncor’s mature fine tailings

Suncor mature fine tailings

© DigitalGlobe 2014

 

In addition, Golder Associates uses our elevation models for satellite monitoring of the Penasquito Tailings Storage Facility. They presented their results at the Tailings & Mine Waste Conference in Vancouver in October 2015.

To find out more about using our high accuracy elevation models for tailings operations, contact us at info@photosat.ca, or 604-681-9770.

 

Tailings dyke elevation image number 2.

Monitoring Tailings Dykes with Satellite Elevation Data

In both the oil sands and mining industries, the integrity of tailings dykes is extremely important. Recent tailings incidents demonstrate this. Mapping the tailings dykes and beaches can be challenging with hazardous conditions restricting access for ground surveyors. Using satellite-based elevation mapping allows for data to be collected remotely, with no risk for ground personnel and no permits needed. Regular topographic mapping during construction allows the design engineers to confirm that the dykes are being built to design specifications.

Currently PhotoSat regularly surveys the topography of tailings dykes for the Alberta oil sands mines to an accuracy of 15cm in elevation. In fact, we map the entire tailings systems for Suncor’s Millennium and Steepbank mines about every two weeks. These surveys are used by a wide range of engineers and planners at Suncor. They even did a presentation about their experience comparing different survey options and why they settled on PhotoSat’s technology as their main topographic survey method.

Tailings dyke elevation image

Elevation image of a tailings dyke, December. Red is high, blue is low.

Tailings dyke elevation image number 2.

Elevation image of the same tailings dyke 6 months later. Red is high, blue is low.

Unique Methods for Elevation Mapping

Satellites can collect imagery anywhere in the world, and with new high resolution satellites being launched regularly, there are more options and collection times keep getting faster. Also, PhotoSat has a unique, automatic system for processing stereo satellite imagery to extract the bare-earth elevation values. That’s right – we invented this process ourselves here in Vancouver, and continuously improve the system to get better and better accuracy results. Additional information about the technology we use can be found on the Technology page. And we test our system regularly by publishing accuracy studies that are available on our website here.

We also survey all parts of tailings projects beyond the dykes for a complete profile of a mine site tailings area, including the sand dumps, tailings beaches, and mature fine tailings. The advantage of satellites is that they can collect imagery over a large area in one shot, providing an instantaneous snapshot of the entire tailings beach waterline, the geometry of the beaches, and the height of the tailings dykes. Areas from 100-200 sq km can be collected in one satellite pass.

Our standard elevation accuracy specs for mining projects is better than 30cm, and you can find out more about our digital elevation data package here. If even higher accuracy is required, contact us as we often can provide higher accuracies depending on the project.

To find out more about our engineering grade satellite topography, contact us at info@photosat.ca or 1-604-681-9770.

PhotoSat 1m elevation image of a tailings beach, with 15cm vertical accuracy

The Challenge of Mine Tailings Beaches and Elevation Mapping

Mine tailings beaches are notoriously difficult to monitor. They’re the hardest surveying task at a mine. Data needs to be up to date, but tailings ponds can be huge: Suncor’s tailings ponds cover over 30 square kilometers. Ground survey teams can’t get close enough for safety reasons, and aerial LiDAR data delivery can be frustratingly slow. Low-flying drones are challenged by cold weather, and cannot cover much distance in a day, so are not reliable when measurements are required for a larger area on the same day.

That’s the challenge Suncor faced at its Alberta oil sands mine. Surveying Suncor’s Tailings Reduction Operation (TRO) site meant getting accurate data quickly over a mine site covering over 270 square kilometers. And when Suncor tried using traditional GPS, they found that only about 20% of the site was safe for crews to access. The next step was to try 3D laser scanners, but these simply couldn’t produce enough data fast enough; multiple set-ups were required and yielded sparse data that required significant processing to be comprehensible and usable. This meant adding to an already too-long wait time, as well as additional expense.

Elevation mapping solutions

PhotoSat’s 15cm accuracy satellite topography (DEM) addresses the challenge. Because we use high accuracy satellites, the data is collected safely and easily, reducing the need for ground crews to expose themselves to hazards. And we can collect satellite photos anywhere in the world, making them ideal for remote or challenging terrain.

50cm satellite ortho photo

50cm resolution satellite ortho photo of a tailings beach. © DigitalGlobe 2013

 

PhotoSat elevation image of a tailings beach

PhotoSat 1m elevation image of a tailings beach, with 15cm vertical accuracy

 

Once the satellite imagery has been acquired, we run it through our unique processing system, developed for the industry by us from seismic data processing tools, with engineers in mind.

We have proven the accuracy of our elevation mapping using tens of thousands of ground control points as comparison. Numerous proof of accuracy studies are available on our website.

We map the entire Suncor site every two weeks, providing usable elevation surveys only five days after data acquisition for use in Suncor’s bi-weekly engineering meetings. Our satellite mapping provides an instantaneous snapshot of the entire tailings beach waterline, the geometry of the beaches, and the height of the tailings dykes. We continue to map the Suncor Millennium and Steepbank mines every two weeks, including mapping the Mature Fine Tailings cells in thickness increments of 15cm.

The digital elevation models are also used for mapping windrows, monitoring tailings dykes, calculating volume changes, and verifying the locations of as-built infrastructure. When Suncor’s tailings engineers need to make a decision, they have the reliable, up-to-date data to base it on.

The original presentation made my Suncor at the 2014 Trimble conference that compares PhotoSat mapping to alternatives, can be viewed here.

To learn more or get a quote for topographic mapping for your resource project, contact us at info@photosat.ca or 1-604-681-9770.

50cm satellite ortho photo

Alberta to Ease Tailings Regulations

Alberta has announced that it is easing up on tailings regulations, as several mine operators in the region are asking for reduced regulatory pressure. It’s a move away from the regulations, known as Directive 74, that have governed Alberta oil sands for the last six years.

Directive 74 required mining companies to ‘reduce tailings and provide target dates for closure and reclamation of ponds,’ and to report to the industry watchdog on their progress. But the industry has failed to meet the requirements of the legislation – and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) watchdog stopped enforcing them in 2013, the last time a company was punished for not hitting its cleanup targets.

Parker Hogan, a spokesman for Kyle Fawcett, the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister, said, ‘What we have heard is that despite the best efforts and significant investments, companies have had significant challenges to achieve the requirements that are in Directive 74.’

Since then, the ERCB has been replaced by a new regulatory body, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), and Directive 74 has been replaced by the Tailings Management Framework (TMF), a new regulatory structure with different aims. (The new framework is accompanied by strict groundwater use rules.)

The key change has been to refocus efforts on growing industry sustainably rather than directly on reducing tailings ponds. The new regulations give industry more leeway in some areas, allowing them to slow the growth of tailings ponds rather than working to actually reduce them; but they also promise new restrictions in other areas.

Kyle Fawcett laid out in more detail the requirements of TMF:

  • limit the amount of tailings that can be accumulated,
  • push companies to invest in technology to reduce tailings
  • establish thresholds to identify when companies must act to prevent harm to the environment
  • require companies to post financial security to deal with potential remediation issues and
  • ensure tailings are treated and reclaimed throughout the life of the project and are ready to reclaim within 10 years of the end-of-mine-life of that project.

Hogan said, ‘this is a shift towards the management of tailings in a way that respects the needs to mobilize new technologies and harness innovation so we can manage this size and scale of environmental impacts to a point we can move away and into reclamation.’ Directive 74 may have been abandoned, but the long-term goals that informed it are still in place.

So what does that mean for mining in Alberta? Are things getting easier or tighter? Overall, the new regulations are mining-friendly. They’re designed to facilitate industry expansion without making unacceptable environmental sacrifices. And that means they’re more long-term, but also that there’s a missing piece of the puzzle: for TMF to come together, new technology that isn’t online yet will be needed. Kyle Fawcett points out: ‘Technology unlocked the oilsands. It will be key to finding the long-term, effective solutions to tailings ponds management.’

Some of that new technology, though, is in place. PhotoSat has extensive experience working with players in the oil sands sector: while oil sands companies seek to accelerate tailings reclamation, reduce the need to build more tailings ponds and reduce their inventories of mature fine tailings, they struggle to do it without accurate, up-to-date survey data. Scanning tailings areas with GPS or ground-based LiDAR comes with a host of problems, including team safety.

50cm resolution satellite ortho photo

50cm satellite ortho photo

© DigitalGlobe 2014

 

1m PhotoSat elevation image (accurate to better than 15cm in elevation)

1m PhotoSat elevation image

1m contours (accurate to better than 15cm in elevation)

1m contours

 

By comparison, PhotoSat’s unique satellite surveying technology, facilitated by software that builds on seismic data processing tools, produces highly accurate elevation data faster, with better definition of steep slopes and without subjecting survey crews to risky environments. It’s a process that’s used to safely survey Suncor’s TRO (Tailings Reduction Operation) in Alberta. PhotoSat has mapped their tailings site twice monthly since 2013, as well as producing automated toes and crests. Many oil sands and other types of mines have adopted PhotoSat mapping to improve tailings monitoring and measurement.

To learn more about our topographic processing system, or to find out how it could facilitate your resource project, contact us at info@photosat.ca or 1-604-681-9770.

Seismic survey points

Improve Seismic Survey Planning with Highly Accurate Elevation Models

When planning a seismic survey, petroleum engineers need to know which seismic source points can be accessed safely by vibroseis trucks. Using high detail elevation models generated from satellite imagery, PhotoSat can help.

We use elevation surveying to prepare the groundwork for seismic surveying. Before holes are drilled or vibroseis trucks are on the move, planners know where the likely best spots are. And thanks to PhotoSat’s 30cm accuracy elevation models, they also know where trucks can’t go.

Overturning vibroseis trucks on steep or sudden inclines is a real risk. Planners need more than contour lines: they need high resolution, accurate topographical data to allow them to plan how to best use their vibroseis equipment while keeping their trucks and crews safe. Mapping the ground slope to within 30cm elevation accuracy enables mapping of no-go zones that are too steep for vibrator truck operations, lowering the risk of overturning the vibes on steep inclines. Our clients tell us that this improvement in seismic survey planning helps them reduce project costs and saves time.

Seismic survey points

 

Advance scouting is expensive, risky and time-consuming. And it comes under fire for its environmental impact. PhotoSat’s proprietary geophysical processing system allows us to create usable digital elevation models and precision satellite images within just a few days of a satellite acquisition, with 30cm elevation accuracy and with no boots – or tires – on the ground. The resultant data can then be used for subsequent project engineering and design.

Another advantage of having accurate survey data in the early project stages is the ability to use the elevation models for quality control of the seismic shot and receiver point survey data. In addition, the data is engineering-quality and can be used for all future design and construction work. This reduces survey wait times and allows managers to have increased faith in the reliability of the data.

So how do we get these kinds of accuracies? We have developed our own unique process, and more information can be found on the Technology page. Also, we have published numerous Proof of Accuracy Reports, that compare our elevation data to tens of thousands of independent survey points.

If you’d like to learn more about how PhotoSat built software developed for seismic data processing into a powerful, fast and accurate satellite surveying tool, or find out how that tool can help your project happen, contact us at info@photosat.ca or 1-604-681-9770.

Mexico onshore oil and gas blocks

High Accuracy Surveying and Satellite Photos for Mexico Round 1 Onshore Blocks

As you probably already know, Mexico’s oil and gas blocks are up for auction and the next round includes the onshore fields. For bidding companies, detailed satellite elevation mapping and high resolution ortho photos can significantly help understand and assess the surface topography.

View the brochure for Mexico blocks satellite data (PDF).

Mexico onshore oil and gas blocks

Mexico onshore oil and gas blocks for bidding

 

PhotoSat can provide 30cm vertical accuracy, 1m bare earth elevation grids (DEM) for all blocks. These DEMs are produced from archive satellite images.

The benefits of having high accuracy surveying include:

  • Assessing environmental conditions including drainage and flood risk assessment.
  • Engineering grade accuracy allows for accurate assessments of the location of existing infrastructure (well sites, roads, pipelines etc).
  • Knowledge of the ground conditions reduces risk.

If the available satellite images used to produce the topographic data are too old for your purposes, we can acquire new satellite images on request. Contact us at info@photosat.ca for information on the data available over the block in question, and for pricing.

We can accommodate custom coordinate systems and are able to use many types of surveys for ground reference points. We can also produce the mapping without ground control points if nothing is available. More information on our 30cm accuracy satellite elevation mapping can be found on our main website.

If detailed base mapping is not required yet, we can also provide high resolution satellite ortho photos only over the desired block.

The following table outlines the existing 50cm resolution satellite images that are immediately available for all blocks. Included are the size of the block and the most recent ortho photo date. If you need more current information, we can task a satellite to collect new images.

Campos Burgos:
Block Size (sqkm) Archive ortho image date
Anahuac 30 October 2014
Duna 37 March 2014
Mareografo 30 March 2014
Calibrador 16 March 2014
San Bernardo 29 November 2013
Benavides 136 November 2013
Pena Blanca 26 June 2015
Carretas 90 November 2013
Ricos 24 August 2013
Campos Norte:
Block Size (sqkm) Archive ortho image date
La Laja 10 July 2014
Ponton 12 August 2015
Paso de Oro 23 October 2014
Tecolutla 7 January 2014
Barcodon 11 March 2015
Campos Sur:
Block Size (sqkm) Archive ortho image date
Moloacan 47 June 2015
Calicanto 11 May 2015
Cuichapa Pte 42 June 2015
Mayacaste 22 April 2015
Tajon 28 April 2015
Paraiso 17 April 2015
Fortuna Nacional 22 June 2015
Mundo Nuevo 28 May 2015
Topen 26 May 2015
Catedral 58 May 2015
Malva 22 May 2015
Secadero 10 May 2015

 

Our standard delivery is an ortho photo centered on each block covering 100 sq km. Pricing is based on the square kilometer, and custom sizes and shapes are available on request.

View the brochure for Mexico blocks satellite data (PDF).

Feel free to contact us for a quote, or for any questions: info@photosat.ca, 604-681-9770.

 

Surface topography image and pipeline routes

Surface topography and pipeline route selection

Oil and gas pipeline routes are absolutely pivotal information. The route that a line has to take is always a trade-off between what you’d ideally like to have and what you have to accept: an ideal oil pipeline would run in a trench across a totally flat surface with constant temperature and no seismic activity. In real life, we have mountains, deserts, heat and cold fluctuations, seismic activity of all sorts, permafrost or rocky outcrops that necessitate raising the line on supports, and other obstacles. (And that’s without mentioning regulatory environment…)

On the one hand, knowing the terrain you have to get across lets you know what kind of pipeline you can have. On the other, knowing the pipeline plans lets you know what kind of geotechnical data you’re going to need to bring it home safely and efficiently.

When you’re researching pipeline route corridor alternatives, you’re equally faced with compromises. You need reliable, accurate surface topography data for the whole potential route corridor. Solid geotechnical data allows correct pipeline route selection and implementation, but getting it by traditional means is costly, time-consuming and environmentally damaging and can run the risk of damaging your local reputation.

Surface topography image and pipeline routes

PhotoSat elevation image and pipeline route options

 

PhotoSat’s highly accurate, engineering-quality digital surface topography allows you to examine and select multiple pipeline corridors and plan final routes, based on elevation data accurate to 30cm vertically. You can do it without risking survey teams in inaccessible locations or hostile environments. Usable engineering survey data is generated fast, typically within five days. We’ll typically supply our oil and gas clients with an engineering quality 1m topographic grid accurate to 30cm in elevation, 50cm or 1m contours, and a 50cm satellite ortho photo. And after it’s been used to select pipeline routes, the surface topography can be used for all phases of the project, because it’s accurate and comprehensive enough for most engineering tasks.

The accuracy of our surface topography has been proven in many accuracy studies using tens of thousands of ground survey points for comparison. View our proof of accuracy reports for more information. We have completed over 500 projects all over the world.

To learn more about our revolutionary satellite image processing system, or to find out how it could facilitate your oil and gas project, contact us at info@photosat.ca or 1-604-681-9770.

Reconciling Surface Engineering Data

One of the biggest complaints we hear from our oil and gas clients is about inconsistent survey data. On the one hand, they’re spending thousands of dollars on surface engineering data, and the cost is justified because of its business value. That data saves money down the line. Except it doesn’t. Because when drilling, completions and facilities engineers get the data, they often can’t trust it.

It’s data that comes from GPS and theodolite surveys, as-built drawings, and from other sources that aren’t always even identified. Any given data point could have come from any of these sources. Frequently the engineering data is not reliable enough.

What’s needed is a data set that comes from one, reliable source. Then existing data sets can be compared against that. Instead of several differing views, there’s one authoritative, reconciled picture of what’s happening on the ground.

PhotoSat offers our oil and gas clients coherent project location data with elevation accuracies better than 20cm. Completions, facilities and drilling engineers can work from a reliable data set now and in future project stages.

Survey data sets for engineering projects

The value of surface engineering data is directly proportional to accuracy. We help our clients maximize the value of their engineering data by providing reliable data across the project site. That data can be used to inform cut and fill volume estimates as well as to streamline facilities engineering projects and well pad selection.

Additionally, surveying via satellite means less boots on the ground. Fewer survey teams have to work in hazardous working environments and less expensive equipment is exposed to the risk of damage at the project site. Data is also available in a usable form far more quickly, typically within five days.

So how does it work?

We start with the data set our client already has. Then we compare it against our own topographic survey. When we find inconsistencies, we work with the client’s project team to select the appropriate reference data set for that inconsistency, and shift the others horizontally and vertically to match it. This process usually means we’re leaving our clients with datasets that match to within 10cm vertically and 25cm horizontally. Clients also get a matching 1m grid of our satellite engineering topography, accurate to 20cm in elevation, and a 50cm precision satellite ortho photo with 25cm horizontal accuracy. That provides a reliable basis for future data-dependent engineering projects like surface design work, including cut and fill volume estimates.

We’ve delivered over 500 projects like this to clients all over the globe, and our clients know that there’s no better, faster or more accurate way to base their engineering data on something reliable and accurate. If you’d like to read more about how our data reconciliation process works, take a look at this engineering data case study. To find out how we can help you with your project, contact us at  info@photosat.ca or call us at 1-604-681-9770.

Toes and crests, satellite image

Automatic toes & crests mapping at Suncor’s oil sands mine

In this article we’ll look at how the engineers at Suncor have adopted our toes and crests mapping as an integral part of their mine planning process. This is the last post in a 3 part Suncor case study series. In the first post, we discussed Suncor’s comparison of various survey methods, and in the second article we showed how they use satellite elevation mapping for monitoring mature fine tailings.

Mapping of toes and crests is important for monitoring open-pit mining. On the ground, vehicular access, overburden removal and bench integrity needs to be ascertained if the mine is to continue to be profitable and safe. But on the ground is the worst place for surveyors to be: survey teams that examine mine sites directly are exposed to hazards like falling debris and bench wall slumping as well as heavy vehicle traffic. Which is where PhotoSat comes in.

In collaboration with Suncor, PhotoSat has developed a process to automatically map toes and crests to an accuracy of 15cm without survey teams requiring access to hazardous areas of the mine site. Production isn’t interrupted, surveyors are working on tasks that actually require boots on the ground, and accurate mapping of toes and crests allows the engineers to monitor bench integrity and check mine progression against projections.

Toes and crests over a satellite photo

Toes and crests data draped over a satellite photo

 

Toes and crests over PhotoSat’s elevation image

Toes and crests data draped over PhotoSat’s elevation image

 

Bird’s eye view of toes and crests over a mine site

Bird’s eye view of toes and crests data over a mine site

 

Mine planning often takes place on a biweekly or monthly basis, reflecting production speed. We’re able to supply our oil sands clients with useable data within 5 days, meaning analysis of progress and erosion is more granular and data is available in a timely manner.

There are several mine surveying options on the market, many of which Suncor has tried (see our first post for Suncor’s comparison of various surveying methods). Typically these rely on LiDAR, which uses reflected laser light to build images. Terrestrial laser scanning involves survey teams setting up and using multiple scanning stations and consequently requires more time to produce images. And survey teams are still on the ground! Aerial LiDAR avoids this issue but results in huge point clouds that have to be processed before an image is usable, which can take a very long time. GPS survey equipment can also be used, but data paucity and safety remain serious issues.

Using satellites, Photosat offers instantaneous snapshots of all mine site toes and crests derived from our elevation grids. Our proprietary geophysical processing system results in far greater accuracy than conventional satellite mapping processes such as photogrammetry.

Oil sands mines change fast and digital vector data for toes and crests are vital to the engineers for keeping track of what is usually softer rock. Suncor switched over to using PhotoSat’s satellite topography as their main survey method in 2013. While some areas of the mine still use GPS surveying, toe and crest mapping has been carried out exclusively by PhotoSat.

Our elevation mapping is also used for other applications at oil sands and hard rock mines, such as:

  • Sloughing in nonactive areas
  • Pipelines and roads
  • Power poles
  • Buildings and structures
  • In-pit geotech surveying
  • Correcting LiDAR issues

For more information on satellite elevation mapping and toes and crests, feel free to contact us at info@photosat.ca or 604-681-9770.

Case study: Reducing Suncor’s mature fine tailings inventory

This post is part 2 in a series looking at how Suncor uses our topographic survey data to  assist their Tailings Reduction Operation (TRO). In this post we’ll look at how they use the data to measure the thickness of their mature fine tailings (MFT) dewatering cells.

Background on mature fine tailings

Mature fine tailings are the clays from the bitumen ore that are suspended in the tailings water. To reduce the area and volume of oil sands tailings ponds, tailings water with suspended clay is mixed with a flocculent which causes the clay to settle out. The tailings water is pumped into dewatering cells where clear water drains off for reuse in bitumen processing while the clay is left behind.

PhotoSat has developed a process to measure the thickness of the clay in each of the mature fine tailings cells in thickness intervals of 15cm. We use our highly accurate topographic mapping between two satellite photo dates to create the detailed elevation maps.

Suncor’s MFT designated drying areas:

  • Total surface area 7.5M m2 (1,866 acres)
  • 697 tailings cells
  • 2788 discharge locations
Suncor mature fine tailings areas

Suncor mature fine tailings areas

 

Zoom of MFT designated drying areas

Zoom of MFT designated drying areas

 

How it works

In last week’s post, we saw that Suncor compared our satellite topographic surveys to other survey methods, and has switched to using PhotoSat mapping as their main surveying method for their TRO operation. The success of this service led PhotoSat, in collaboration with Suncor, to develop a process for automatically mapping the thickness of the mature fine tailings dewatering cells in increments of 15cm. This helps them reduce existing mature fine tailings inventory. The isopachs are provided in map (polygons) and tabular forms.

Satellite photo of MFT system 1

Satellite photo of MFT system 1, July 27, 2014                     Elevation image of MFT system 1, July 27, 2014

 

 

Isopachs (thickness) of MFT System 1

Isopachs (thickness) of MFT System 1, June 29 to July 13                  Thickness changes, July 13 to July 27

 

The spreadsheet data we provide also includes MFT volumes since the last pour, the total area in m2 covered by MFTs, the area of the polygons, the utilization of the polygons, and the MFT lift thickness.

Mature fine tailings mapping from our 15cm accuracy topographic surveys improves the monitoring and measurement of the tailings, providing Suncor with a cost-effective and reliable alternative to GPS surveying and aerial LiDAR mapping. Using satellites also reduces safety risks for field crews.

Next time we’ll look at how Suncor has adopted toes and crests mapping as part of their TRO process.

For more info on our topographic surveys contact us at info@photosat.ca.

 

 

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.

Accelerate Mining Volume Measurements with Satellite Topography

Accurate mine planning requires continually adjusting the plans for the situation on – and underneath – the ground. Resource quantities and locations are changing frequently, and mine layout is affected by blasting, tunneling and ore removal. That’s especially true in open pit mines, but all mining engineers face the difficulty of working with the same digital elevation data while the ground shifts.

In fact, that’s one problem that more efficient communication between the mine face and site and the engineer simply can’t solve, because no one on the ground has a high-level overview either. What’s needed is an update of the original elevation data to reflect what’s happened since.

A common method of doing this is with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). But LiDAR is expensive and time consuming, so we need a mapping system that can be used more often. The only snag is that it has to both deliver similar accuracy and cost significantly less to permit more frequent use.

Step forward satellite topography.

Satellite topography using new, geophysical processing techniques results in similar accuracies to LiDAR and can be used for yearly, quarterly or monthly reconciliations, allowing engineers to work with accurate representations of what’s really happening on the ground. PhotoSat’s satellite elevation mapping for mining volumes has proven accuracies of better than 30cm, providing a clearer picture.

Mining volume changes over an open pit

Volume changes over an open pit mine

 

That means that when it’s time to make volumetric change measurements in pits, stockpiles, waste dumps and tailings, satellite mapping lets you view and analyze the situation simply and easily. Our clients tell us that one of the main advantages of using our satellite system is the ease with which they can check on as-built locations of buildings and structures and reconcile them to the original plan. Reconciliation can even be on a biweekly basis if the project is moving fast. That helps engineers with tailings management, and also makes life easier and safer for on-the-ground surveyors, resulting in greater accuracy and fewer injuries.

How can a satellite system deliver biweekly updates? Partly because after ground-based scans have been acquired, the images have to be compiled. In the case of a system like vehicle-mounted ILRIS (Intelligent Laser Ranging and Imaging) that’s the bottleneck; from raw data to point cloud to the computer processing and satellite location necessary to produce a useable image, nothing much can compete with the 8 days PhotoSat’s technology can take to produce a useable result.

Satellite image with mining volumes

Satellite photo with mining volume changes

 

Finally, using satellites rather than ground-based methods removes the need for surveying to take place on or near the mine site. As a result, the surveying process is safe and never needs to interfere with mine operations. There’s no risk of damage to vehicles or injury to surveying personnel when your imaging is done from space!

To find out more about how satellite topographic mapping can help make mining a safer and more efficient process, leave us a comment or contact us at info@photosat.ca.