Drones deliver better data, save money and enhance safety

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By Ellsworth Dickson

On occasion, the mining industry has been accused of being slow to adopt new technologies. There is some truth in this as mining is so capital intensive, some companies would prefer to be the fifth in line to utilize new technologies rather than first. It may be difficult or impossible to correct or replace something that doesn’t work – and there is only so much funding available.

On the other hand, both junior exploration and senior mining companies have been quick to use drones on a daily basis for conducting airborne geophysical surveys, mapping as well as monitoring open pit operations at quarry and metal mines. Drone applications also extend to maintaining safety and security as well as underground operations.

In a report prepared by GlobalData, Drones in Mining – Thematic Research it notes that Surveying and mapping usually is an expensive and time-consuming process – even with a handheld GPS; however, “by employing drones and a drone pilot, instead of a piloted plane, a mine can save around 90% of the cost per hour and collect unlimited aerial data – including fine measurements by simultaneously capturing high-end orthoimages”.

Drones fly in parallel flight lines and take many overlapping photographs with an accuracy of a few centimetres. The photos are then merged into one 3D photograph.

The GlobalData report discusses the challenges mining companies face in managing stockpiles of ore and waste rock which change shape as mining operations proceed. Not only can drones generate aerial terrain models to easily calculate tonnage, drones can keep track of any undue movements of a stockpile.

Drones are also useful for constantly monitoring hard-use haul roads for trucking safety and optimum use. Drones are also used to for infrastructure and equipment inspection and surveillance for security reasons.

One of the more serious drone applications is the monitoring of tailings dams that can eliminate manual surveying. Monitoring tailings dams with a drone can provide the mining company with the ability to maintain the dam’s structural integrity, design expansion and pinpoint any problems that could lead to dam failure.

Underground miners face challenges that most workers never encounter – rock falls, extremely humid conditions, gas leaks, dust explosions and floods – which is why drones are now used underground for monitoring and inspection.

It has been reported that some 70% of senior miners have taken to drones, including Barrick Gold, Teck, Rio Tinto, BHP, Anglo American and Anaconda Mining, to name a few; juniors – not so much, but increasing.

Geologist can send out drones for photographing and mapping new, unknown terrain which can be accomplished quickly, safely and at a low cost.

All of the above tasks can be quickly carried out by on-site workers who are not “real” surveyors or “real” pilots at a fraction of the traditional cost.

Some popular drones include the DJI Phantom 4 RTK and the fixed-wing Sensefly eBee that requires a landing field.

Other companies provide both conventional airborne surveying as well as drones. GEM Systems are now building sensors and electronics for Unmanned Airborne Vehicles (UAVs). The GEM Hawk is a fully functional UAV Helicopter with drone flight control and self-stabilization. GPS guidance, automatic RTL, and even Waypoint capability make this autonomous solution an easy and efficient survey method. Since it can take off vertically, this platform is ideal for the bush and flying just over top of trees and topography.

Well-known Yukon-based prospector Shawn Ryan with his GroundTruth Exploration provides aerial drone surveys that produce Ultra High Resolution Imagery and Digital Elevation Models which are invaluable tools for exploration planning, data analysis and presentation.

According to PwC, Drone use in construction and mining could eventually become a US28.3 billion global market. Businesses within these industries are leveraging drones to more easily adhere to the extensive laws and regulations surrounding worker safety.

Clearly, drones are here to stay and are now an integral part of the exploration and mining sector for the following reasons: affordability, unmatched data accuracy, convenience, portability, time-saving, many useful applications above and underground and safety enhancement.

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