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Curtain drawn on sky-high mine reclamation technology

Stephen Igo • Jul 29, 2016 at 1:06 PM

BIG STONE GAP — An Israeli data gathering and analysis company drew the curtain for a peek at the potential of sky high technology to assess mine reclamation efforts across the coalfields of Southwest Virginia during a presentation at Mountain Empire Community College on Thursday.

Dr. Robi Stark, co-founder and chief executive officer of Sensilize, partnered the company’s sensor equipment with Hazon Solutions’ octocopter drones to conduct demonstration data gathering flights over select mine lands in Wise County earlier this week.The flights aimed to show the potential of sensor-mounted drones to assess current reclamation success, or lack thereof if applicable, as well as the potential to improve reclamation processes in the future.

Stark hails from Galilee in Northern Israel. He holds a Ph.D. from Ben Gurion University of the Negev and has over two decades’ experience as an environmental remote sensing specialist. Sensilize is currently engaged in UAS-mounted sensing operations around the globe, including Africa, India, the United Kingdom, Central and South America, and Europe.

Sensilize sensor applications are adaptable to need and expanding market demand, but include forestry and agriculture. One example Stark displayed on Thursday was sensor mapping of a vast gold mining area in South Africa. Part of the data from that project detected potential seepage problems from mine tailing impoundments.

Stark passed around his company’s Robin Eye Multispectral Sensor that employs eight specialized cameras, yet weighs just 800 grams. It is easily mounted on the UAS industry’s small octocopter drones to overfly study areas and collect an immense amount of data including discerning different tree species if desired.

The Sensilize/Hazon demonstration flights over reclaimed mine lands north and just northeast of the Town of Wise earlier this week collected data for a snapshot of vegetative health on those areas and potential pollution hotspots. The resulting data maps, literally a bird’s eye view from 100 meters altitude (about 400 feet) provided a colorful, data-packed map of the terrain.

Stark said UAS-mounted sensors developed and now employed by Sensilize can provide a big leg up in assisting reclamation specialists to restore old and active mine landscapes into sustainable land uses and environmental health.

Stark’s presentation was prefaced by remarks by MECC President Scott Hamilton and Virginia’s 9th District Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem. Hamilton spoke of the college’s fledgling drone flight program and Griffith of the UAS industry’s potential to help diversify Southwest Virginia’s economy.

Drone technology is “motivating, exciting technology for young people,” Hamilton said. The college is in the midst of establishing a 24-credit drone flight training program, and just last week was named one of two community colleges in Virginia to not only establish a full-fledged program, but also participate in developing the faculty as well.

Griffith praised grassroots visions to establish Southwest Virginia, in general, and Wise County, in particular, as a UAS research and development hub, noting that while it’s certainly fine to transition the region’s economy from coal to whatever else, “you cannot destroy one part of the economy, and it, the largest part,” and yet expect economic revitalization “to happen organically.”

Griffith said the hope is that UAS and related industries will eventually be attracted to “a forward looking community” offering a wide array of uses for UAS technologies, with R&D and education/training programs well-established place to support them.

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