How drones are modernizing mining operations

By Paul Jim | March 20, 2018

Slow to change and reluctant to address the economic, environmental, and safety impacts, the mining industry has been struggling to keep up with the ever-progressing technological world. If it does not hop on board with the fast-advancing technical developments seen today, it will quickly lose its standing in this world of regulations and competition.

To help mining become more competitive in today’s industrial world, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) offer a wide range of applications. Drones have been catching the world’s eye for a large part of this decade, making themselves an integral part of how businesses operate. They are a common sighting in the news and media, from kids’ toys and leisure activities to commercial applications like deliveries, remote sensing, and surveying. As interest in drones increases, so do their applications and technologies, with many companies developing and adapting their UAS, software, and payloads to be a cost-effective addition to many industrial operations.

Depending on your governing body—Transport Canada, the Federal Aviation Administration in the USA, or the Civil Aviation Safety Authority in Australia—there are strict regulations that you must conform to if you wish to be a UAS commercial operator. All are put into place to maintain aviation safety and mitigate safety risks to civilians, property, and the environment. Reputable manufacturers do include obligatory equipment training with a purchase. However, it is important to extend this training to fully understand how UAS function and become a skilled operator. Should one of its systems fail—the GPS system, for instance—an operator must be able to instantly regain control and manually maneuver the craft while staying in control.

The remote locations of most mining sites are perfectly suitable for the application of drones. Typically located away from built-up areas, the isolated property limits of mining operations make for ideal flight plans in accordance with aviation regulations.

Current practice is to complete surveys by ground, often encountering dangerous and hazardous environments with a high potential for injury. Although this might appear to be a more cost-effective and straightforward course of action at face level, ground surveying is typically a compromise of point density and duration/complexity of the survey. Because they are able to make daily non-intrusive site inspections or surveys, drones can analyze everything from earthworks and stockpile volumes to surface cracks and equipment issues. All while providing a highly detailed and accurately colored-3D model capable of exporting all industry standard outputs.

Drones are providing pictures and data that have never before been integrated into the day-to-day operations of a mine. They reliably provide accurate and detailed visuals while reducing the risk of accident and injury to people, as well as the direct and indirect time required to complete the task. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. And when the picture can be collected while eliminating exposure to hazardous areas, the resulting information is priceless.

Drones provide a new level of data collection, bridging the gap between ground and air services. This makes them particularly valuable in mining operations, because previously it wasn’t economically feasible to complete frequent full-scale aircraft aerial surveys.

As with all new technology, there are limitations and growing pains and drones are not exempt. Their flight times are typically limited to between 30 minutes and one hour depending on the use of a rotorcraft or fixed wing, respectively. They provide a maximum survey coverage of 2.2 km² from a single fixed location, assuming a fixed-wing platform designed to operate within the operator’s visual line of sight. Larger, more involved and cumbersome platforms are available, but the additional range and payload options come at a cost. Photogrammetry solutions are nimble, cost-effective, and very powerful. However, they do not check all the same capability boxes as LiDAR (light detection and ranging). Depending on the requirements of a project, a proper selection process must be completed to ensure the required quality and accuracy limits are well understood. One thing is clear: Drones shine when used for frequent and relatively small aerial topographic surveys and visual inspections.

There's nowhere to go but up. The industrial drone industry will only improve its capabilities and list of applications. Soon, we’ll be seeing smaller, more mechanically robust machines with even better data collection. Before long, fully autonomous drones may be able to fly beyond line of sight, making sure all is in-check and letting us know when otherwise. Drones will monitor pipelines to find leaks, inspect power lines to find damage, and map our world. We’ll be sending them into areas that would be either too difficult or just too downright dangerous for humans. There are simply no limitations to this technology. Truly, the sky is the limit!