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The Mining Sector Puts Drones to Work

The Mining Sector Puts Drones to Work
The Mining Sector Puts Drones to Work
The Mining Sector Puts Drones to Work

Drones are beginning to take flight in the mining industry. The newly adopted technology, which has been utilized for a wide array of mining activities, is taking another step forward.

"Ten years ago, I would have had a rat's chance of convincing any mine surveyor to take a UAV on," HeLImetrex CEO Ray Gillinder says. "These days it seems to be a lot more acceptable."

Unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as UAV, are turning the mining sector into an emerging frontier for new technology. In recent years, these miniature helicopters have helped the industry find cheaper and safer ways to map deposit sites and explore for minerals via remote control.

“They are really safe, easy to use, lightweight. You can put them in a small bag and take them everywhere,” said Olivier Kung, co-founder of Switzerland’s Pix4D, which makes software to convert photographs from the smallest drones into usable data.

With the ability to monitor stockpiles, map exploration targets and track equipment, the usage of drones in the mining industry is limitless. 

Cost efficiencies and benefits

One of the biggest benefits of using UAV’s is the cost. Cheaper than traditional helicopters, drones are reshaping the way mining companies survey new areas, providing better results for a fraction of the cost.

“It may cost $2,000 an hour to rent a helicopter,” he said. “Our costs for sending a couple of operators out with a system is under $200 an hour,” says Mike Hutt who heads UAV projects for the U.S. Geological Survey.

According to British Columbia’s Accuas Inc., drones will eventually become the future of mining operations. “I would say starting a year ago, there’s been a really big push on UAVs,” said Scott McTavish, the president of Accuas. “I think it’s going to continue to grow.”

“It’s much cheaper technology, much higher mobility, because you can carry the equipment in a suitcase,” he said. “You’re much more flexible.”

Buddy Doyle, who first started following UAV technology in the mid 80s, says the low cost of drones will be the major selling point.

“The idea is to be an airborne data collector, best and least-expensive, and that’s what we’re doing,” said Doyle. “The biggest hurdle, I would say, is regulatory.”

In addition to surveying, the likelihood drones are used in other avenues of mining operations is a clear possibility.

"The possibilities for the application of drones in mining are seemingly endless with new uses coming to light every week and more widespread utilization being reported across the industry," said Nigel Court, mining program and project manager for Accenture.

"We see potential benefits across the value chain, from safety and security (search & rescue, monitoring / providing information from dangerous and difficult locations) to exploration  and development (such as aerial photography and remote sensing) and productivity (stockpile mapping, mine mapping & reconciliation and time lapse photography) just to name a few.

"Leading mining businesses are rapidly making these kinds of capabilities available through their use and customization of drones. Turning these ideas into results of course requires coordinated planning across the value chain and focused execution. While we are likely on the front side of the hype cycle, we believe these capabilities will continue to mature and will transform the industry."

Court went on to provide a prime example of time savings when using drones for mining.

"Imagine there was an issue on the rail line in the Pilbara, from the time the problem is identified to getting the worker out there to see the cause of the issue through to getting someone out there to solve it, it could be three hours or more, whereas if a drone is flown over it can reach the site in less than half an hour, take high resolution photos that can be used to identify the problem, after which someone can be sent out to fix out the problem," he said.

"It also has the ability to take high resolution, time lapse pictures of a site to see if fractures have appeared in the rock faces over time for early detection so that it removes much of the risk and increases safety on site."

Rules and regulations

The first step in implementing more drones in mining operations is figuring out the regulations for each country. In the United States, only public agencies can fly drones and in Canada operators must apply for regulatory waivers. In other countries, controllers must keep drones within eye sight of operations.

Earlier this year, Territory Iron was awarded an operating certificate from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to use drones at its Frances Creek operation in Australia.

“We started to look at the potential for UAVs at our mine in late 2012. Given that our team had no previous aviation or RC knowledge, we searched for a turn-key application which included hardware, software and training,” says Darryn Dow, Chief Mine Surveyor for Territory Iron.

“This was to help integrate any system we purchased into our current mining operations with minimum disruption to our daily task lists. At that time there were few systems that ticked all the boxes we wanted, especially cost, and we finally decided on the Sensefly Ebee/Pix4D package being distributed by Haefeli Lysnar Geospatial Solutions in W.A.

“We also approached CASA at about the same time, seeking direction on how to obtain the certification necessary to comply with regulatory guidelines. This lead to enrolling one of our surveyors in the BAK and PPL courses being offered by the Western Australian Aviation College in January and March 2013.

“Our first surveyor was CASA certified in June 2013, and another surveyor will be applying for his certificate in April this year. By year’s end we plan to have three certified controllers to cover our FIFO rosters.

“We then set about applying for the operators certificate for Territory Iron. Not having completed operating manuals of this kind before, we did struggle to come to grips with the content and structure required. Luckily for us, John Frost – CASA’s airworthiness inspector for unmanned aircraft systems – helped us simplify this process by supplying us with a preferred generic operating manual that had been developed to guide new applicants, and we tailored it to reflect our intended use.

“Risk assessment and drug/alcohol policies already existed within the company so we submitted these to show we were capable of managing our UAV system safely. Following a trip to Canberra to complete the field testing component of the submission, we were awarded our Operators Certificate in December 2013.

“To date we have flown more than 100 missions and collected data for a wide range of tasks. Monthly reporting of stockpile inventories, pre and post-mining imagery of land disturbance, data capture for exploration and mine planning purposes, photo evidence of environmental and heritage compliance, as well as general presentation imagery used for site communications, account for the majority of routine use of our UAV.

“We recently began to develop geological mapping missions which will eliminate the need for personnel to access areas of the open pit that are hazardous (rock fall potential) or congested (interaction with mobile mining equipment).

“From a surveyor’s perspective, I was initially skeptical that we could produce results that would adhere to the spatial accuracies we achieve with conventional surveying instruments like GPS and laser scanners.

“This has been enhanced by placing numerous ground control points within the mission area to aid the spatial corrections applied during software processing. Although we allow a slightly larger tolerance in absolute positions achieved with the UAV, the results still fall within industry accepted standards. Now I am confident we regularly achieve a high quality result.”

Investments in drones

The investment for drones is growing. Australia’s mining industry alone spends roughly $3.7 billion a year on research and development and the ability to operate more efficiently in remote regions where drones aren’t likely to be threats to high-density populations is a huge selling point for the technology.

This past year, mining computer tech company Maptek has jumped on the airborne technology, making a significant investment in the start-up DroneMetrex. Although managing director for DroneMetrex wouldn’t disclose the exact nature of the investment, he did elaborate on the purchase.

“We've built a mapping system from the ground up, everything is designed for the drone from the start,” Tadrowski said.

“Other companies are building drones and then putting mapping systems in them, but no-one’s ever going to be able to do it properly that way,” he said.

“We design the whole system to be the same as DGPS, with real time, kinematic surveying… we’re getting elevation accuracy of 25mm, but we’ve actually been getting better than that.

“Our competitors are getting about half a meter to a meter accuracy, although they’ll try to tell you different, but no-one will do it with their hand on their heart.”

Rio Tinto, for example, has been aggressively working to build its Mine of the Future incorporating drones in a wide array of activities. The company’s representatives said Rio will begin employing UAV for exploring, mapping and surveying later this year. Rio Tinto’s use of drones could exponentially speed up the use of UAV’s in the industry.

While still in its infancy, drones are expected to make a major impact in the mining industry in terms of productivity, cost and efficiency in future years. 

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