Matt Key combined his mechanical engineering skills with a hobby he loved. Now, as chief drone pilot at Rio Tinto’s Kennecott operations in the US, Matt leads a team of 20 certified drone pilots and is helping to improve safety and productivity at the Bingham Canyon copper mine.

Matt talks us through his typical day and what it takes to become a drone pilot.

How did you get into flying drones?

I’ve been flying model aircraft for well over 30 years, but it’s really only the last five or six years I’ve been involved with drones.

My son had a drone a few years ago – a little toy one. Just seeing the look on his face, it was simply amazing to see how much he enjoyed it. I thought, well I can build one of those. So I did some research and started building them for him. Then I started building more…then on a big scale…then on an industrial scale.

Eventually my name got out there and local drone companies began getting me in as an engineer. At the time it was just a side venture.

Drone footage taken by our chief drone pilot, Matt Key

What’s your professional background?

I actually started out in the military, in the US navy. My background is in mechanical engineering, and so from the military I moved to an R&D role in the defence industry.

I joined Rio Tinto Kennecott in 2012. When the team heard about my passion for drones, they thought I would be a good fit for the drone programme and its objectives, and I moved into my full-time role as a pilot.

What training do you need to become a drone pilot?

The US’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) requires you to have a 107 commercial pilot’s licence. That involves a course that teaches you the FAA rules and regulations, and then you need to take an exam.

Once you pass the exam, you undergo flight training. At Kennecott, this involves running through procedures and technical manuals that go with the drones. Our trainees then undertake several hours of simulator training which involves mock scenarios – so they’re proficient at flying before they even touch a drone.

We then take the trainees to an isolated location out in the field and do one-on-one sessions flying the drone. Once they’ve exceeded their 20 hours of flight time and I feel they’re ready, they sit in a final exam. If they pass, they become a drone pilot.

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Matt Key out on a mission

What skills are required to be a good drone pilot?

Hand-eye coordination is a must. It’s a particular strength we see in younger generations given their experience with video games and other digital technology. It’s simply amazing to see how fast they catch on – it’s second nature to them.

I think patience is important too. It’s a pretty fun job – but there’s a lot riding on it. You have a lot of responsibility because you’re there to get good quality data and to get it back to the business as quickly as possible. I love the job – but there’s a lot more involved than people think.

What does your typical day look like?

The first thing I do is make sure all the drones are ready to go for the day. I go through a checklist and function-test the drones. It’s like an assembly line – drones come in, get serviced and then go back out.

I then look at the jobs that need to be done and assign them to pilots, who are briefed and then sent out on the mission. We’re constantly getting requests and prioritising jobs. The pilots are coming and going throughout the day.

Once each mission is complete, the pilots come back in and we process the data and send it on to the relevant team. A lot of the information we send out is in the form of 3D models or “Point Clouds” of the pit that are accurate within centimetres.

I also conduct training – even fully qualified pilots need a refresher. After pilots have been out in the field for a certain amount of time they undergo remedial training. We also need to train pilots on how to operate new models and how to do certain jobs they may not have done before.

There’s also quite a bit of paperwork involved – we need to update our standard operating procedures, conduct risk assessments and undertake quality control checks to ensure our activities are meeting all necessary rules and regulations.

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Drones like this one are helping to improve safety and productivity at the Bingham Canyon copper mine

How have drones helped at Kennecott?

One of the biggest benefits is safety. There are some jobs where it’s better for drones to do it rather than people – for instance high wall mapping or rock fall analysis. By using drones we’re removing people from harm’s way. We can also use drones to identify safety risks – such as cracks and signs of rock movement.

We can see things we’ve never seen before. For instance, we’re using thermal diagnostic capability to identify equipment problems from the air. We can identify high friction rates on equipment in real time and notify the maintenance teams so the issues can be addressed.

It’s an efficient way to collect data – you can send a drone in to collect all the data you need, analyse it and then send it off to the relevant teams. The business is able to make better, faster and safer decisions across the board. Right now we’re working to streamline our data processing system to make it even faster and more efficient.

We’re also working with the training team to capture footage for training videos that will help train new equipment operators. There are just so many applications – the sky’s the limit.

What would you say are the highlights of your job?

Every day there’s a new mission, a new task – I couldn’t have a better job. How many people can honestly say that they go to work every day and love their job?

I love working with people, and teaching people. And changing people’s attitude about drones. They get a lot of bad PR, but there’s no reason for it when they’re used correctly. A drone is just a great tool to have.

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Drones are helping the team see things they’ve never seen before. For example, they’re using thermal diagnostic capability to identify equipment problems from the air.

What sort of rules and regulations do you need to follow?

According to the US FAA regulations, we can’t let drones out of our line of sight. We also have to keep a long distance away from any vehicles or people – or anything of that nature.

Our procedures at Rio Tinto Kennecott exceed the federal guidelines. We take it to the next level so everything is as safe as possible.

We conduct risk assessments and if an area is identified as a hazard, we simply don’t fly there. It has to be 100 per cent safe or we just don’t do it.

What would you say to people who may be considering becoming a drone pilot?

It’s a tech-driven job, so I’d encourage people to go to school, graduate and get your engineering degree or similar – it’s only going to help you in the future.

In fact we’re working with the local universities here – with their robotics departments. I can’t stress enough how important it is for people to get involved with the different programmes offered by their locals schools and colleges.