Exyn Technologies' Mine-Mapping Drone Can Create 3D Maps Without GPS

The drone guided entirely by its onboard sensors will be deployed inside a South American mine to help researchers make detailed 3D maps.

Exyn Technologies

According to Technically Philly, drone startup Exyn Technologies is deploying an unmanned aerial vehicle underground next week to map a Latin American mine entirely without GPS. The autonomous navigation here is impressive by itself, of course, but what really sets this endeavor apart is that the vehicle will be guided completely by its onboard sensors, since the depth and cavernous environment being traversed inherently doesn’t allow for GPS signals to reach the drone.

We’ve reported on this type of undertaking before, when Swedish researchers developed an underground-mapping drone similarly stripped of any potential GPS signals unable to reach so far below the surface. Traditionally, mining operations do include some surveying of the structures in question, but Enyx Technologies CEO Nader Elm claims these are fairly primitive, and only provide rough 2D models. 

To be clear, the drone won’t have a single bit of preloaded map data to assist its travels. Of course, it won’t go in entirely blind, as it’s equipped with accelerometers, gravitometers, cameras, and MiDAR (multispectral imaging, detection, and active reflectance) technology. This will provide the UAV with enough tools to find its way through the dark, narrow pathways without the need for traditional GPS guidance. 

“The best way to characterize this is if we were blindfolded and were told not to remove the blindfold,” said Elm. “In the absence of GPS, it has to perceive its environment by using different sensors and building maps of the environment and its relationship to that environment.” 

This is a huge boon for the University of Pennsylvania, as Exyn Technologies launched and branched out of the university’s GRASP Lab in 2014, and will now benefit from its sophisticated tech. The data that the Exyn Technologies’ drone collects next week will allow the university’s researchers to construct 3D models of the mine and thereby have a thoroughly detailed map of the entire environment. This can then functionally be used to spot and analyze any potential safety hazards before sending people down without knowing the risks. 

“That’s an advantage we have: the research, talent and the relationship with the university,” said Elm. “We have 77 years of robotics experience in our existing team.”

Let’s take a closer look at Elm and his team's undertaking here.

Not only does this autonomous drone approach provide researchers with a clearer, more informative picture of the environment, it can also be done as often as desired due to the heavily decreased cost contrasted to conventional methods. “We can enable much higher detail and fidelity with 3D models,” said Elm. “And because it’s a robot, it’s much more cost effective to do it frequently.” 

As it stands, the Latin American mining location remains undisclosed. While Exyn Technologies employees will be on-site for this particular drone mission next week, the company’s long-term goal here is to make this service as user-friendly and all-encompassing as possible, so that mining companies can simply pay for the technology and easily deploy the drone without any assistance. In terms of the drone industry at large, we continue to see ingeniously practical methods of employing UAV technologies across industries. From agriculture and construction to drone racing and mapping, the drone as a tool just keeps proving how multifaceted it really is.