Faced with the reclamation of a disused solution mining well field in Colorado, Solvay employees found the perfect solution to monitor the process: using a drone! 

Part of the operation of the Parachute site, Colorado, used to include a soda ash solution mining well field. Located on federal land in an area known as Yankee Gulch, the decision was made to shut it down. Solution mining consists in digging big holes and injecting water in them to collect dissolved minerals; this means numerous wells need to be plugged and lots of piping, buildings and other structures need to be removed in order to return the land, a remote and fragile environment, to its natural state.


Mark Brassette piloting a drone at Parachute site


Impossible from the ground


Such an operation involves many challenges: avoiding new disturbances on a piece of land that requires an evaluation by an anthropologist (for Native American artifacts) and a paleontologist (for fossils), and working in steep and arid terrain with a short field season. As the reclamation began, it was important to document the disturbed areas before and after soil re-contouring and seeding was completed. From the ground, this was a nearly impossible task, and using a helicopter or small plane would be impossibly expensive.

Mark Brassette piloting a drone

So the idea of using drone emerged as the perfect solution. Mark Brassette, the site’s technical services manager, purchased a drone (for approximately $2,000), obtained his FAA Remote Pilot Certificate and taught himself how to operate it in order to get the photos needed for each well pad. Now, before-and-after comparisons of land contours are easily made and reclamation success is easy to monitor.  It is like having an on-demand, realtime, high resolution version of Google Earth!

Whatever the trick, drones can do it

As drone capabilities continue to evolve, so will their potential uses. The Parachute team has used drones for some basic site mapping and to obtain photos for safety presentations. In the future, they hope to use drones for reseeding reclaimed areas and will continue to explore other possibilities. Solvay sites in Europe, Asia and South America have also experimented with drones for infrastructure inspections with the possibility of using them for security scanning.




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