Space robotics company targets mining exploration in Australia

  • By Andrew Spence, The Lead South Australia

A Canadian space robotics company that relocated to South Australia this year has completed the first trial of its autonomous atmospheric satellites ahead of its first commercial launch in 2020.

Lux Aerobot is planning a fleet of atmospheric satellites 30km above Australia to capture data for mining, precision agriculture and defence.

It already has an agreement with mining company Oz Minerals to use hyperspectral technology to scope out exploration sites in remote areas and is also in talks with two other major Australian miners.

This month’s trial launch took place 50km southeast of Adelaide in conjunction with Adelaide-based satellite developer ResearchSat.

The atmospheric balloon reached a height of 30km and was able to capture high-resolution images before returning safely to Earth this month.

The atmospheric balloon launch 50km east of Adelaide in December 2019.

Further launches with sensing equipment payloads up to 10kg are planned for early next year with the first commercial Oz Mineral launch planned for mid-year.

“Firstly we wanted to demonstrate we could launch the balloon, recover it, track it and then acquire images from 20km-30km,” Lux Aerobot co-founder Katrina Albert said.

“Our first market is mining so we’re working more towards exploration and operation monitoring with different types of remote sensing to help derive information and reduce drilling, which is very costly and harmful to the environment.

“There’s almost no other technology that operates in that part of the atmosphere but it’s close enough to Earth to be good for very high-resolution imagery and high frequency applications such as coastal monitoring and border security.”

Hyperspectral imaging can be used to identify plant health in agriculture and classify different rock types for early stage mineral exploration. High resolution images can also be used to monitor operational mine sites and identify potential problems such as cracking.

“All the mining exploration sites that were easy to find have been found on Earth so now we’re looking to find sites in more remote areas where there’s less infrastructure,” Albert said.

“A solution like our balloons can fly over these difficult areas and gather information at lower cost.

“There’s not a lot of companies using high altitude balloons yet and a lot of the value can be derived from being able to stay over the same point of interest for a month at a time because when you do so you can guarantee capabilities over a specific area, which means you can sell to a specific customer.”

Lux’s move into the mining industry received a boost last month through national technology innovation program GRAVITY Challenge where it won two competitions.

It took out the Oz Minerals Challenge to find new techniques to perform mineral exploration and analysis and the Airservices Australia Challenge to better understand the impact weather patterns have on high demand air space.

Lux Aerobot’s Katrina Albert receives a GRAVITY Challenge Award from Oz Minerals’ Richard Cheung during Space Week in Adelaide, November 2019.

Albert said Lux’s high altitude balloons could also replace drones for regular monitoring and weekly planning at operating mine sites. She said Lux’s Software as a Service (SaaS) business model allowed mining companies to focus more on their core business.

“Currently mine sites usually use drone images but because of the regulations around drones they only have one image per week to work with. Whereas what we’re offering is more frequent images – one to two a day,” she said.

“According to the conversations we’ve had with the operation guys, that will make a big difference in terms of planning because often they need to make operational decisions on a daily basis but they have outdated information.

“From a customer point of view all they really want is the information, there’s no extra value in them operating it if all they want is the information – it is an autonomous system.”

Albert and Vincent Lachance founded Lux Aerobot in Montreal in 2018. The team came to Australia at the beginning of this year to begin discussions with local mining companies and further assess the suitability of Australia’s wind patterns for atmospheric balloons.

Albert and Lachance made the move to South Australia in August after being accepted into Australia’s first space incubator program Venture Catalyst Space at the University of South Australia’s Innovation & Collaboration Centre in Adelaide.

“We can’t operate for 12 months of the year in Canada, we needed to find areas closer to the equator and Australia was definitely closer to the equator than Canada,” Albert said.

Lux Aerobot captured a range of images from 23km above Earth during a trial of one of its atmospheric satellites 50km east of Adelaide this month.

South Australia has been a significant player in the nation’s space industry and is home to major Tier 1 defence companies, the SmartSat CRC and several emerging space start-ups, including Fleet Space Technologies, Inovor Technologies and Myriota.

Late last year Adelaide was announced as the home of the Australian Space Agency, to which a $6 million Mission Control Centre for small satellite missions and an educational Discovery Centre was added in March.

Albert said Lux would remain in Adelaide when the Venture Catalyst Space program ended in March and hoped to move into the Lot Fourteen innovation neighbourhood alongside the Australian Space Agency and a number of emerging space companies.

She said the program had introduced her to the Australian space community, helped Lux achieve a “soft landing” in Australia and has exposed the business to a range of funding possibilities.

“When we decided Australia was going to be our first market we looked for programs and opportunities and that’s where the Catalyst Space program came in,” Albert said.

“One of the reasons we were interested in Adelaide was because of the space agency here and how cool we found it to take part in this growing space community.

“The vision is to have a fleet of atmospheric satellites covering a specific region and then you can have a live digital twin of that region.

“It’s like a Google Earth live with very, very high resolution. The goal is not for it to be available to everyone like Google Earth is but that it is a data set that is accessible and is sent to the right person for the right purpose.”

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia.

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