Paleochannel Hunting Guide

Paleochannel Hunting Guide

Finding an ancient river channel is the holy grail of placer gold exploration. If you’re in a gold-bearing area, old river channels can hold the kind of unlocked treasures that dreams are made of. Prior to the gold rushes of the mid-1800s, you could have walked up to a virgin stream with untouched gold nuggets sitting in the bottom. That is an extremely rare discovery today. Ancient river channels are hard to find but that’s why many channels are still undisturbed waiting for a smart prospector to discover them.

Klondike Wash Plant

There are undiscovered paleochannels hidden to the naked eye all over the goldfields of North America, and other gold placer districts all over the globe. Advances in technology have aided in the discovery of these ancient channels, some of the tried and true methods still hold true today. How can you find something that you can’t see? This article will explain what paleochannels are and how we find them.

Paleochannels have many names. Such as:

  • Tertiary Channels
  • Periglacier Channels
  • Quaternary Channels
  • Ancient Channels
  • Paleo-gulches
  • Ancestral Rivers
  • Paleo-valleys
  • Buried channels
  • Stranded Channels
  • Inverted Paleochannels
  • Abandoned Channels
  • Ancient Rivers of Gold

Some of those terms refer to specific ages or other characteristics of the channels but they all basically refer to the same thing, river beds that have run dry and have been buried by sediment. There are lots of reasons why a river might change its course but the end result is more or less the same.

The definition of a paleochannel is:

a remnant of an inactive river or stream channel that has been filled or buried by younger sediment

Paleochannels can form in many ways. Either slowly over time or abruptly from things like tectonic activity, glacial dams, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, or by human intervention.

When reading about ancient channels there are terms that often come up such as preglacial, periglacial, tertiary, quaternary, and many others. Those are just adding a time period to the formation of these channels, they’re really all the same thing. “Tertiary channels” are often written about in western North America, but that just means they are ancient channels that were formed during the tertiary period. The tertiary period ranged from the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs (the K-T extinction) about 66 million years ago to the beginning of the ice age period about 2.6 million years ago.

The quaternary period is more recent ranging from 2.6 million years ago to today and has experienced several periods of glaciation. The Pleistocene and Holocene are also part of the Quaternary Period.

Preglacial and Periglacial refer to the timing of a channel in relation to a glacial period. Approximately a dozen major glaciations have occurred over the past 1 million years, the largest of which peaked 650,000 years ago and lasted for 50,000 years. The most recent glaciation period, often known simply as the “Ice Age,” reached peak conditions some 18,000 years ago before giving way to the interglacial Holocene epoch 11,700 years ago.

People sometimes get hung up on some of the terminology but whether a channel formed in a specific time period doesn’t make a huge difference to a placer miner. To be honest, when it comes to placer exploration, every ancient channel in a gold-bearing area is worth exploring, regardless of the age. A channel that only formed 100 years ago has the same likelihood of containing placer gold as one that formed 3 million years ago during the tertiary period. What really matters is whether the creek that formed the channel carried gold or not.

Oxbow Lake

A familiar feature that resembles a paleochannel is an oxbow lake. These formations occur when a meander in a river gets cut off. You can observe oxbow lakes in many places, eventually, the lake will run dry and you’ll end up with a buried paleochannel. Oxbows can be gold-bearing even though they are not considered a “paleochannel”. Streams meander and change course frequently, in some places you can watch oxbows forming in near real-time.

Rivers and streams form all kinds of channels, for different reasons but they all have some things in common. A paleochannel is really the same thing as the rivers and streams that you see today, it was just rerouted and buried by sediment. When prospecting a paleochannel the same rules apply, the old river had inside bends, exposed bedrock, boulders, etc.

The character of a Paleochannel

There are several characteristics that make up a paleochannel. They can tell you a lot about its setting and the depositional environment, which in turn can give you a good idea if placer gold will be present or not.

Those characteristics are width, sinuosity, thalweg, slope, and age.

paleochannel thalweg

Channel width is an important metric for characterizing streamflow and depositional environment. The width is measured perpendicular to the centerline from bank to bank. The width can tell you a lot about a channel, especially when combined with other factors.

Sinuosity is the measure of how much a channel meanders. The sinuosity is measured by dividing the channel length by the straight line distance down the valley axis. You can infer the slope, transport capacity, and other factors from the sinuosity alone. More sinuous channels, those that meander a lot, occur on gentle slopes, the straighter the channel, the steeper the slope.

channel sinuosity

Thalweg is a funny word that comes from German meaning “valley way”. Don’t ask me why we use a German word but we do. The thalweg is simply the deepest part of the channel which is colloquially referred to as the “gutter”.

The slope, along with the width and sinuosity is used to calculate the ability of a channel to transport sediment. The slope is the average angle of the valley in which a stream lies. From a placer standpoint, we know that if our sluice box is too steep the gold won’t catch in the matting, if it’s too shallow the sediment won’t clear. A creek is no different.

The famous California goldfield geologist, Waldemar Lindgren studied channel slopes in relation to placer deposits in BC, California, and the Yukon in 1933. Lindgren determined that the optimal slope for placer formation is a 30-foot drop to the mile or 6 meters per kilometer which calculates out to a ratio of 0.06. The Klondike’s Bonanza Creek averages 50 feet to the mile (0.01). Dominion Creek, in the Klondike, averages .02; there are slope breaks to 0.01 and that is where most of the gold was trapped. Almost all placer-bearing channels in BC range from a slope of 0.02 to 0.10.

Types of Paleochannels

Bench Channels occur on high benches or terraces above a current river. The flat benches represent the ancient valley floor. As river valley systems evolve the river cuts deeper and deeper into the bedrock leaving old channels high and dry. If you retrace the history the old river would have sat at a higher elevation than it does today.

Bench channels typically have a single channel and aren’t braided. The slope, sinuosity, and width tend to be similar to the current stream. These paleochannels typically run parallel to the existing steam but not always.

High benches can be observed in many river systems in western North America and many rich paleochannels have been discovered and mined within them.

Evolution river valley paleochannel

Buried Paleochannels within modern valleys can be adjacent to or underneath an existing alluvial stream within the same valley. The extent of these channels is difficult to determine due to the complexity of their setting. These channels can be very deep and sometimes buried under several different glacial or fluvial events. The sinuosity, width, slope and direction often mirrors that of the existing stream but not always.

These channels are difficult to mine due to the continual flow of water from the existing stream. A bedrock drain or lots of pumping is often required.

A great example of this type of paleochannel is the Wingdam Mine on Lightning Creek in the Cariboo. Omineca Mining and Metals has found a unique solution to mining their deposit, check out the video below.

Paleogulches are another type of ancient channel. They are gulches that dried up and were buried by sediment. Paleogulches have steep sides and a relatively steep gradient. They have low sinuosity and a relatively straight path. The channel often runs on or near bedrock due to the steep slope of the thalweg and high flow rate.

Gold in these deposits is usually coarse and hasn’t traveled far from the source. Paleogulch placers, like other buried-channel deposits, are typically covered by thick deposits of till, glaciofluvial deposits, and glaciolacustrine sediments.

Paleotrunk-valleys are similar to the paleogulches above. They are trunk valleys that were abandoned and filled with sediment. These deposits are often hundreds of meters wide and quite deep. Paleotrunk-valleys typically no longer have a stream running in them and tend to be totally filled with sediment leaving little to no surface expression.

The Bullion hydraulic mine near Likely, BC is an example of this type of paleochannel. The Bullion Pit produced over 120,000 ounces of gold over the lifespan of the mine. The famous Mary Creek deposit is another example of this type.

inverted paleovalley

Inverted Paleochannels form in a totally different way. They sit high above the surroundings but not on a bench, and not in an existing valley, at least not usually. This type of paleochannel forms when a river valley is filled with lava from a volcanic eruption. The resulting lava cools into basalt and forms a protective cap that is much stronger than the surrounding rock. The result is that over time the surrounding rock is eroded but the basalt is much more resistant and protects the sedimentary rock below it, leaving a high ridge where the river used to be.

Inverted channels are more common in the southwestern United States in places like Utah, Idaho, and eastern Washington. I’m not aware of any gold deposits from inverted channels but it is possible.

An important note about paleochannels: not every channel contains gold. There are paleochannels all over the earth, only ones in gold-bearing areas are significant for gold prospecting. After all, the ancient channel won’t contain gold unless the creek that created it carried gold in its sediment load.

Most parts of North America have been exposed to glaciation at some time or another. The more northern parts have seen extreme transformations of the landscape due to glaciers scouring the surface of the earth. This makes finding ancient channels a lot harder.

It’s rare to find an entire river system entombed in sediment in BC, for example. What you usually find are fragments of ancient rivers. Some can be only a few hundred meters long while others can stretch for 10s of kilometers. There are often pieces missing due to glacial or other types of erosion.

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The job of the prospector when exploring an ancient channel isn’t too different from a crime scene investigator on CSI. You’re dealing with fragments of channels and what you want to do is add up the clues to reconstruct the crime scene. Modern prospectors use a variety of tools to put those clues together.

How to find a paleochannel

Now we know the types of channels and a little bit about them. How do we find a paleochannel that we can mine?

One of the tell-tale signs of a paleochannel is finding compacted river gravels in an exposed bank. If you’re in the right place and you’re lucky enough to come across river gravels in an exposed bank you could have discovered an ancient channel. Old river beds have certain characteristics that differ from other materials that you’d often see in an exposed bank.

An old river bed will have the following features:

  • Rounded river rocks
  • Densely packed
  • Sorted by size

River beds look different than glacial till, for example. Till will generally have different sized rocks randomly jumbled together, not sorted. Till can have rounded rocks but they are usually accompanied by angular rock of different sizes. A river bed should have bigger rocks at the bottom and finer, rounded gravels on top. River beds are packed together similar to the way that a brick wall is put together, everything fits together tightly with sand and gravel filling in the gaps. It’s not always totally obvious but if you see these signs it’s worth exploring further.

Spotty pay is another potential sign of a paleochannel. If there are sections of a creek that pay well and contain really good gold while other sections are barren that can be due to a rich paleochannel. Sometimes rivers don’t carry any gold of their own but redeposit gold from an ancient channel. It’s also possible that gold is washing down from a hardrock deposit, either way it can pay off big time to investigate spotty pay areas. The same is true when there are several creeks close together and they only have placer gold in a certain region on each creek. If the hot spots on several creeks line up there is probably a reason and it could be that the creeks all cut through a hidden paleochannel.

Spotty Gold Paleochannel
The old-time miners often discovered ancient channels by digging shafts by hand. Many channels have been discovered in this way. It’s not very effective by today’s standards but some people still use this technique. The presence of compacted river gravels underneath layers of sediment are a good sign that a paleochannel is present.

The old-timers would often dig numerous shafts looking for a channel and would dig a horizontal shaft known as a drift once a channel is located. That involves a lot of backbreaking physical work with a low chance of success but during the 1800s and early 1900s, there weren’t as many options available as there are today.

Here’s a great 5-minute YouTube video that describes what compacted river gravels look like, as well as some of the geology at play:

The modern prospector can benefit from advances in technology, especially computer mapping and GIS. Modern mapping tools such as Google Terrain maps can help to find the habitat where paleochannels are likely to be present. LiDAR and drone-based high-resolution terrain mapping can give highly detailed terrain maps which aid in locating favorable conditions for paleochannel exploration.

For example, river benches as described above can often be seen on topo maps. It’s unlikely to see a channel outright since they rarely have a clear surface expression, if at all, but you can narrow down the search area by looking at terrain that is favorable for channels to occur.

Once the search area has been narrowed down to a specific area more advanced techniques can be used to map the exact location and depth of a paleochannel.

There are several geophysical techniques that can map underground structures without having to excavate down to the channel level. Geophysics uses a variety of techniques to map the subsurface of the earth. Some work better than others for mapping paleochannels.

Magnetometer surveys have been used on many occasions to attempt to map ancient channels. A magnetometer is an instrument that measures changes in earth’s magnetic field. They are commonly used in hard rock exploration due to their rapid speed and relatively low cost. Magnetic survey results are usually presented in a map that looks like a thermal image except that instead of temperature you’re looking at variation in the magnetic field, measured in nano-tesla (nT). When exploring for a paleochannel the concept relies on trying to pick up the magnetic signature of concentrations of black sand. The survey usually involves recording measurements along lines perpendicular to the channel and looking in the processed data for anomalous magnetic highs where black sand concentrations are present.

Magnetic surveys have been used a lot in the past but have a very low success rate for mapping paleochannels. This is largely due to false positives from surrounding rock and weak concentrations of mineral sands. I haven’t seen any of these surveys that have actually been successful in locating a paleochannel on their own.

Ground penetrating radar (GPR) is another popular technique. GPR uses a system with two components, a radar source and a receiver. The GPR source emits radio energy of a specific frequency and the receiver records reflections of subsurface rock and soil layers. The survey is laid out in a similar way, with lines perpendicular to the channel.

GPR has also been used in many exploration programs with limited success. Some channels have been discovered in this way but GPR has a few drawbacks. The signal is attenuated by groundwater, clay layers, and permafrost. Under perfect conditions, GPR can map a channel but the data is often ambiguous and of poor quality.

Electromagnetic techniques such as resistivity have a much higher success rate but they have similar issues to GPR when it comes to groundwater. Geoelectrical resistivity tomography (GRT) surveys have a much higher success rate than GPR or magnetometer surveys. The way they image the channels is a bit vague but many channels have been found with this technique. GRT has a few drawbacks as well, conductive bedrock, groundwater, and other factors can lead to unpredictable results.

Sample Cross Section
Sample Cross Section

Seismic surveys have the highest success rate for mapping paleochannels. Seismic works in a similar way to GPR but instead of radio waves it uses vibrational energy. There are two types of seismic used today. Refraction and passive seismic. Refraction surveys have been around for a long time and have been used to find many paleochannels with a very high rate of success. A refraction survey uses an energy source such as dynamite or a specialized shotgun to introduce energy into the ground. An array of sensors called geophones are laid out in a survey line to record the reflected waves that bounce back off the subsurface layers. The timing and velocity of seismic returns give information about the density of layers and their depth from the surface.

Seismic energy passes through groundwater, clay, permafrost with ease and if done correctly will accurately map the subsurface layers. The drawback to refraction seismic is the cost. It takes an experienced crew and expensive equipment to perform this survey correctly.

Passive seismic surveys are a new technique that has only started to be used in the last decade. The passive technique does not require an energy source and can be done with a much smaller crew at a fraction of the cost. Passive seismic is the new kid on the block but it has proven to be very effective at mapping hidden paleochannels. Passive surveys also remove the need to cut lines which lowers costs even more. More info on this technique here, bedrock mapping.

Once a channel is identified and the location is known, further testing is required. The above techniques are able to show the location, shape and character of a paleochannel but won’t give you any information about the gold content. For that you need to take actual samples.

Depending on the depth of the channel there are several options. If it’s shallow enough you can test with an excavator but that is rarely the most economical option. In most cases you need to drill.

There are several drilling techniques used in placer exploration and there are pros and cons to each.

Auger drills are popular among placer miners due to the relatively low cost and perceived sample size but they have serious drawbacks. Augers struggle with large rocks and boulders, and can’t usually penetrate bedrock. They also tend to ovalize the hole leading to sample contamination and material loss down the hole.

Sonic drills are the most effective option. A sonic drill uses a high frequency vibration to bore through soil and rock. These drills take undisturbed samples and can drill through gravel, boulders, and bedrock. You can’t beat the sample quality and efficiency of a sonic drill but the costs of this type of drilling can be quite high.

RC Drill in Action
RC Drill in Action

Reverse circulation (RC) drills also work really well. These drills use a downhole hammer that pulverizes the rock and gravel into chips which are pushed to a collection cyclone at the surface using pressurized air. RC drills also work really well for placer exploration. RC drilling has been used to successfully map many hidden paleochannels in BC and the Yukon.

Rotary diamond drills can also be used with specialized drill mud. These are less common than RC or sonic but have been successful in some situations.

Once you have identified the places where paleochannels are likely to occur from topographic maps, conducted geophysical surveys to map the channel and taken drill samples to confirm the channel depth and gold grades you’ll have the information necessary to develop a mining plan. If the gold grades are high enough to profitably mine then you’re ready to start production.

Many of the richest placer mines in the world exist on paleochannel deposits. They are notoriously difficult to locate and prospect but the results can be extraordinary. Advances in modern technology give today’s prospector an advantage that wasn’t available to miners in the past. There are hidden paleochannels in every mining district and even in places that have been mined for over a century. Discoveries are being made in places that nobody thought to look at in years past. Keep your eyes open for indications of an ancient river channel, there just might be a bonanza sitting right under your feet.

Drone Mapping of a Coal Mine

Drone Mapping of a Coal Mine

West Coast Placer was contracted to conduct high resolution aerial drone mapping of a coal mine in Alberta, Canada.  We were hired by the environmental department to map two parts of the coal mine to aid in their reclamation efforts.  We produced high resolution imagery and 3D models.

3D_terrain
3D DSM

With our fixed wing mapping drone we were able to produce several custom mapping and imagery products.  We made a beautiful high resolution orthophoto, a digital surface model (DSM) with topographical accuracy up to 30cm, a LAS format point cloud and one more 3D model.  We were also able to format the 3D data so that it could be used in their mine planning software (Minesight).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Two sections of the mine were surveyed.  We flew a total of three flights in the same day.  The mine asked to have the main pit flown two times to confirm the accuracy and repeatability of the data.  We were happy to oblige and of course the flights matched within 2cm of each other.  Each section that was flown was about 2 square kilometers and our drone has the flight duration to cover each section in one flight.
UAVflightPath
UAV Flight Path

The photo quality on the still photos and orthomosaic was outstanding.  We were able to achieve an image resolution on the georeferenced mosaic of 4cm/pixel.  That means that each pixel in the photo represents a real world footprint of 4cm by 4cm.  That kind of resolution cannot be matched by current satellite imagery providers.  Actually they are not even in the same league.  The best satellite imagery that you can buy today is provided by WorldView-3 satellite and has a resolution of 31cm/pixel.  It also costs a lot of money.  Google Earth come in at a pitiful 65cm/pixel in the best locations.

View from the top of the pit
View from the top of the pit

Here are some examples of our imagery.  First is a shot of the truck that we used as a base station for the drone.  You can clearly see the truck, the two operators and even the pickets in the bed of the truck.  You can click on these images for a larger view.

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Here is a Google Earth image of the exact same location.  I love Google and everything that they do but this image is just no comparison.  To start with it’s three years old (despite the 2016 copyright note at the bottom), the mine does not even look like that today.  The resolution is so poor that you can’t even tell what you’re looking at.

Here are a couple more shots from the same flight.  You can clearly see this orange excavator and other details.

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The 3D data is also incredible.  Check out the video below for a great example of the 3D data that we produced.  That video shows a virtual fly though of a LAS point cloud.  LAS is the same format that LiDAR data produces.

Drone technology is just making it’s way into the mining world.  With the low cost and amazing imagery it is a no brainer for many applications.  In the case of this coal mine the environmental team now has excellent data to aid in their reclamation planning that would not have been available only a couple years ago. Check out this post on drone applications in mining.

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Our client was very happy with the products that we produced especially for the price.  Check out our Drone Services page for details on pricing.

How Do Drones Work?

How Do Drones Work?

Five years ago you rarely heard the word “drone”.  When you did it brought up images of military air strikes and futuristic sci-fi movies.  In 2015 drones have become commonplace and are starting to be used in many industries.  A drone provides many advantages over traditional fixed wing data collection and the low cost makes it a practical solution to many problems.  Hobbyists are also quickly getting into the game due to dropping prices.  It is amazing how many people will drop $1000 or more on these high tech gadgets.

Drone FPV

Drones, also called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs),  are flying robots that are able to execute a task autonomously.  They come in several different forms but they all have the same core components.  The four critical drone components are Autopilot, Propulsion, Sensors, Payload.

The Autopilot

The autopilot is the essence of what makes a drone.  In order for an aircraft to be called a drone it must have the capability to fly without human intervention.  The usage of the word drone has been misconstrued in recent years.  Just because an R/C aircraft has four rotors and a camera does not make it a drone, it muse have autonomous flight capabilities.  Autopilots are sort of the brain of a drone.  They monitor all the information coming in from the sensors and send signals to the control mechanisms based on their programming.

GlobalHawk

The autopilot software functions much like a thermostat.  For example if the drone’s alitutde is set at a certain number the autopilot will contol the aircraft to maintain that number.  If the drone rises higher the autopilot will adjust the controls so that the drone descends, if its too low it will set the controls to climb.  The autopilot operates in this way for hundreds of different parameters such as airspeed, altitude, GPS position, attitude (3D orientation), and many more.

The use of autopilots goes back to at least the late 1940s when experimental aircraft were able to operate completely by computer control.  Modern commercial airliners actually employ autopilots that can control the aircraft from takeoff to landing, the only thing they can’t do is taxi.  Every time you fly on a commercial jet you are riding a large autonomous robot.

For a flight to be successful the autopilot must have the parameters for the flight such as flight path, altitude, flight restrictions and settings stored in its memory before takeoff.  Once in flight the autopilot will use the preprogrammed information to follow a flight pattern and land at a predetermined location.  Watching an autonomous drone in action is quite an experience, they can give the impression that they are thinking for themselves.

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Pitot Tube

The Sensors

Sensors on a drone connect it to the real world.  They perform the functions that the eyes, ears, nose and other senses do in a human.  A drone can only know what the sensors tell the autopilot, much a like a human’s concept of the world is based on what we can see, smell, hear and touch.  For example a drone will not have any idea it is heading directly for a tree unless it is equipped with an obstacle avoidance system.  The same is true of hitting the ground or a person who walked in front of the aircraft.  The pitot/static system is used to measure the current airspeed and altitude.  This sensor measures air pressure from a forward facing tube, as air speed increases so does the pressure.  The static tube measures the change in barometric pressure which decreases with altitude.  The pitot system also measures the wind speed by comparing the airspeed to the GPS speed.

drones-Communication

Most drones have a GPS system which is the basis for autonomous flight plans, and in the case of very accurate GPS systems altitude can be measured.  Drones also have a 3 axis accelerometer which monitors the aircraft’s orientation relative to the horizon.  Accelerometers are also used in smart phones, they are the device that senses when you shake or tilt the phone.  More complex drones have fancy inertial measurement units (IMUs) which use gyroscopes and other methods.  Drones have servos which monitor and adjust the position of control surfaces such as ailerons, or rudders.  Servos are electric motors that are calibrated to precisely place their control arm.  There are countless optional sensors which can add new capabilities to a drone.  Some optional sensors are altitude lasers or radar, trasnponders, voltage sensors, magnetic compass, and obstacle avoidance sensors.

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The Propulsion System

There are a variety of propulsion techniques in use in drones today.  The majority of drones use electric motors.  The typical drone that most people would think of is a multirotor helicopter.  These use electric motors with a propeller on each.  Thrust of each motor is carefully controlled to maintain the correct speed, altitude and attitude of the drone.  Small fixed wing drones often use electric motors too although usually just one.  They are typically propeller driven as well and they work together with the control surfaces to make a flight successful.  Electric motors rely on battery power and can fly as long as the batteries hold a charge

Gas or heavy fuel motors are used on larger fixed wing drones and are still usually propeller driven.  There are a few drones out there using jet and turboprop engines such as the Reaper (armed version of Predator).  Rocket engines have been used for decades in target drones.  Targets were one of the first uses of drones by the military.  Its hard to believe but military forces around the world routinely shoot target drones which cost $20,000 and up each.  Gas or rocket drones run on a fuel source and their flight duration depends on how long the fuel lasts.  Gas drones also have batteries for their electric components and some of them have an on board generator.

I was part of the team that developed this drone
I was part of the team that developed this drone

The Payload

Quad
Payload is often the area where the most development work is focused.  After all these robots are flying for a purpose.  The most common payload is some form of a camera.  The majority of drones out there are either taking photos or video.  Most small drones consist of a multirotor with a GoPro camera on a gimbal.  Mapping drones like the one used by WestCoastPlacer have a down facing high resolution camera that is triggered by the autopilot.  Mapping drones also record the GPS position and aircraft orientation with each photo for use in processing.  Different kinds of cameras can be used such as infrared, multispectral and hyperspectral.
Camera mounts that I designed in 2012
Camera mounts that I designed in 2012

LiDAR laser scanners are starting to be mounted on drones too.  It has taken a long time to miniaturize LiDAR sensors to the point that a small-medium sized drone can carry one.  Drone LiDAR sensors to date have not been able to provide classification so that a bare earth model can be produced.

Magnetometers are being mounted on drones too (Pioneer Exploration, GEM).  These are geophysical sensors used to measure changes in Earth’s magnetic field.  This sort of data is used in mineral exploration and location of land mines and submarines. There are many more payloads out there such as air quality sensors or wifi internet repeaters.

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The Communication System

Another important component of a drone is the communication system.  It is technically possible to operate a drone without real time communication since they fly autonomously however it is irresponsible and in most places illegal to do so.  An unmanned aerial system will include some form or radio communication with the operator.  The operator will have a radio link hooked up to a field computer with base station software to program the drone and monitor in during flight.  On board the drone will be some form of two way radio system which will transmit data to the base station as well as allow the operator to issue commands.  Telemetry data received from the drone allows the operator to monitor the flight and make sure that everything is working properly.  Examples of telemetry data are things like airspeed, battery health or fuel level, position and orientation.

Typical radio frequencies that are used are 900 Mhz, 2.4 GHz or 5 Ghz.  Range of a standard system is 5-10 km.  Factors that affect radio range are frequency, transmit power, antenna choice and terrain.  Some drone operators have had great success using directional and helical antennas.  Some helical antenna systems are capable of communicating up to 100km away. Cheaper drones communicate via WiFi (also a form of radio) to a smartphone or tablet.  WiFi range is limited to several hundred meters but can be extended with directional antennas.

HelicalAntenna
Helical Directional Antenna with Tracker

Cellular modems are used in some drones utilizing LTE/GSM networks and can greatly increase the operating range.  Essentially you can fly anywhere there is cell coverage.  Satellite systems are also used which operate on a satellite phone network such as Iridium.  Theses communication systems have virtually no limit on range but have slow throughput and expensive by the minute billing.

All the individual parts of drones work together to execute a flight and achieve the goal of the operator.  New uses are being discovered for this technology every day.  The low price and superior data quality make the UAV a powerful tool for collecting aerial data.   In the coming years we are going to see drones used in more and more industries.  It just makes sense.

 

Check out our drones page to see the drone services provided by WestCoastPlacer.