Something’s gotta give: Fleet Space CEO

Richard Roberts

Top image :
Fleet Space Technologies CEO Flavia Tata Nardini
‘To find all of this new metal, in the same way we have been doing it, will take 333 years’

In the pre-Elon and SpaceX age, rockets were being launched every 12 years or so. Now they’re leaving Earth daily. By Flavia Tata Nardini’s maths, the minerals exploration business needs a similar reset.

Speaking at the AusIMM 2024 International Mining Geology Conference (IMGC) in Perth, Western Australia, Fleet Space Technologies’ co-founder and CEO wasn’t just talking about a steep improvement in discovery rates needed to boost quality reserves of vital minerals.

Achieving that required disruption of the current model, she said.

Part of that disruption needs to be in the shape of a Schlumberger-type mineral exploration services and technology enterprise (or maybe a Tesla or SpaceX). Notwithstanding the fact that the US$70 billion oil and gas services giant has crossed into the minerals game, maybe a firm armed with a 21st century variant of electrical coring can change the course of critical minerals exploration.

Maybe Fleet Space can fit that bill.

Tata Nardini said the 2015 start-up had morphed into a global company – “I still like to call it a tech start-up because it sounds cool, but we are much bigger than that” – with more than 120 employees, 40 mining customers and a valuation, post its last A$50 million equity raise, exceeding $350 million.

“We have learned so much,” she said.

“The first deployments were terrible. We didn’t understand anything.

“We have done in the past couple of years 300-plus surveys in five continents.

“Still now we try to understand how to make it work for the industry and what is needed and what is missing. It is a combination of a lot of technology with a promise to make it 30 times faster, not 10 times faster.

“We promise to go end-to-end.

“From my point of view, as a service provider into the industry … it is missing someone that brings it all together. It is too separated. And the separation makes time fly.

“You’re used to doing work like this. It’s normal for you. But it is not really efficient.

“It is a way of operating that has been like this for a long time, but it can be changed.

“If you look at oil and gas an operator like Schlumberger has got 60% of the market. End-to-end makes it much faster.

“I know how hard it is to trust a new player, a new technology, new ideas, a new approach. That’s fine. This is my job. My job is to help you [and] my job is to convince you.

“What is also missing is someone to use the data that you guys have. That sounds like, oh my god, another new data set.

“But the new data set is the data set that make sense of all the rest.”

A rocket scientist from Italy who wanted to be an astronaut – “I wanted to go to other planets, and I still do” – Tata Nardini said she discovered similarities between space and terrestrial explorers that sparked an enduring fascination and admiration for the latter.

“Geology … is an art. You guys are artists,” she said at the IMGC.

“We [both] like really difficult problems, no matter if looking for something up there or looking for something down there.

“We like to find. We like the unknown. We like to go beyond what other people think is possible.

“In the past five years I’ve moved from rockets to rocks.”

Tata Nardini said difficult problems to solve ranged from building and harmonising a large multi-disciplinary rocket, data and geo science team, finding an optimal sub-surface scanning and modelling method and then developing deployment tools, and enabling rapid, dense data transmission from and to the remote places geologists tended to find themselves.

“We decided to build our Tesla,” Tata Nardini said.

“So, build our own satellites and our own [data] acquisition system.

“Every satellite in the world could not serve what I was trying to do [which is] exploration in the middle of nowhere. It’s terabytes of data if you want to have 3D data sets in the middle of nowhere [and] bring it fast enough to a computer so that I can give you real-time insight in the field.

“So I started from the most complicated thing and I built satellites. The satellites are cheap and small, 25kg, and they’ve got the performance of an NBN satellite that is like hundreds of kilos. So they’re really high-tech.”

Fleet Space has so far launched eight nanosatellites and has more planned.

“We also started building devices on the ground to gather the data sets that I thought were missing. We call it ambient noise tomography, or AMT.

“It was a hell of a journey to try to understand if this was the right path. It’s not active seismic; it’s not passive seismic. It’s listening to the earth noise.

“AMT measures velocity that is a proxy for density, so in reality you don’t see the mineralisation. You see structure, you see folds, you see behaviours.

“But then when AI comes in and you bring all the data together, you bring it to the next level.

“And this is where we are starting to see mineralisation [and] making sense of it.

“This is why it’s exciting.

“So we did dedicated sensors; very complex with edge computing.

“They shrink terabytes of data into insights.”

Tata Nardini has come to appreciate the tactile nature of interactions between geologists and their drill core and so understands that core scanning is a vital part of tomorrow’s mineral exploration toolbox. When a geo tells her touching rocks provides information that a photo or LiDAR scan can’t, she has no reason to doubt it.

“The texture [aspect] really did throw me,” she said.

“It’s not a simple problem to unpack, but we’ll unpack it.

“The harder it is the more fun it is to unpack.

“But if I can have information about the core, while the team is there, and put it in a 3D model and update the model in real-time and send that information within 48 hours, that changes everything.

“In the past seven months we have looked into every company around the world that does core scanning, or core scanning technology or AI for core scanning … you name it.

“Most of them are very focused on scanning the core not in the drilling phase but when the core is out and … I think there is a missed opportunity there.

“I think we need to equip every drill with core scan technology that feeds [live geological information]. We already have an MVP. I really hope we can make it happen.”

Tata Nardini said Elon Musk wasn’t a rocket scientist but he changed that industry.

“Something like this happened to me coming from the space industry to your industry, and I call it pure naivety,” she said.

“So let me show you how I see the world with pure naivety.

“You know, 17 years to build a new mine; 12 years to find your deposits.

“The average in the market is 0.5% [drilling] success rate. So one out of 200 drill holes hits anything.

“And it’s interesting because the discovery [rate is falling] at a moment when it should be rising, because we are going towards a beautiful future of net zero.

“We need [to find] seven times more copper and 12 times more lithium. Unfortunately, it’s all true.

“I now have a Tesla, and it’s 82 kilos of copper compared to my previous car [which has] 20 kilos of copper.

“So clearly something is [not right].

“I did the math, because I am a nerd, and the reality is to find all of this [new metal], in the same way we have been doing it, we will find all of these things in 333 years.

“Something has to change.”


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