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The Impact of Drone Technology on the Mining Industry

Leaders in the mining industry are enjoying a $200 billion boom in profits. Mining operation productivity is stabilizing.

To put it simply, the mining industry is on an upswing.

After years of resistance, mining professionals are finally accepting new tactics.

Among the new strategies is drone technology. The interest (and the investments) are rising.

In fact, 70 percent of attendees at the MINExpo in 2016 said they knew about drones and their potential impact on mining projects.

Investments are surging across the world. Australia's mining industry alone spends about $3.7 billion each year on research and development.

The buzz around drones is worth all the hype. Here's the impact drone technology is having in the mining industry:

Creating a Safer Experience

Safety is a top concern in the mining industry. Workers face various hazards.

They can fall or experience fatal methane gas explosions. Long-term exposure to dangerous chemicals and dust can cause occupational diseases, such as pneumoconiosis.

Drones are making mining safer in many ways. For example, cave-ins that trap miners are often caused by improper drilling and blasting, which is a result of incomplete mine mapping. Drones map mines more efficiently, using sensors and GPS technology.

Equipment like the Terra Drone's Laser Drone uses a SLAM (simultaneous localisation and mapping) system to operate a stable flight when GPS availability is questionable, such as when it's deep in a mine. This means it can accurately capture information underground.

Reducing Cost of Operations

The cost of drone technology upfront can be staggering. However, in the long-term, it saves a lot on operational costs.

Time of surveys Manned surveys can take months to map a 100-acre job site. The cost of salary for the entire survey team is high, and so is ensuring them against the potential risks of the job.

Using a mapping drone, you can complete the task in minimal time. They fly over the site, capture the data, send it to the mapping software, and the data is analyzed from there.

Progress Reporting

Traditionally, you would have to spend a lot of money on sharing progress with clients, contractors, leadership teams, and developers. You pay for their time, their travel expenses, temporary housing, and additional expenses.

However, using data collection, you can share progress updates in real-time. This reporting is also more engaging when you provide video recordings from the drone.

Accurate Inventory

It's easy to misjudge the materials you order from contractors. With drones, you can track any changes to your site and accurately measure what you need quickly.

Conducting regular assessments helps you optimize your profits for your mining operation. Collecting data via drone technology helps you limit uncertainty and make data-driven decisions.

Doing the Heavy Lifting

You might need to send deliverables throughout your project site. There are several ways to use a drone for transportation.

In fact, Dr. Simit Raval, a leading drone researcher in Australia, said he designed a prototype water sample collection system using a drone.

Fortunately, newer drones are equipped with the capacity to carry a good amount of weight. For example, the VAPOR 55 delivers the highest payload capacity. It can fly at optimal performance while carrying 11 pounds.

Surveying and Mapping

This is the main use of drones in the mining industry. It involves strategies like capturing topographic maps, performing pit progress updates, and collecting thermal imaging.

Mapping is essential to any project, and with drone technology, it's more accurate than ever before. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are even being used to capture data and assess seismic hazards.

Accurate surveying and mapping has several benefits. These include the following:

- Preventing infrastructure failure and equipment damage
- Reducing the use of excessive blast materials
- Tracking the dispersion of fumes.
- Drones can also provide live video feeds to security teams and help emergency response teams make better decisions.

Building the Connected Mine

The pipedream for professionals in the mining industry is building a 'connected mine.' To put it simply, a connected mine delivers high-definition holograms of a site, helping mining professionals visualize and interface with a real-time, mixed-reality experience.

This involves more advanced technologies, like virtual reality, spatial context, and augmented reality. This mine is 'connected' to aggregated data stored in the cloud through several operational technology systems.

Ideally, a connected mine provides you with the following:

- Visibility of asset utilization at anytime, from anywhere
- Customizable notifications of events, delivered in real time
- Enhanced predictive maintenance, reducing cost of machine inventory and downtime
- Analytics-enhanced data from in-pit equipment
- Anticipation of safety risks and accurate tracking of personnel
- The advent of drone technology plays an integral part in the connected mine. Drones will be capturing and sending a lot of data to technology systems that will contribute the connected mine.

Concerns Within the Mining Industry

Mining professionals are reluctant to fully adopt drone technology (and for good reason).

First of all, endurance is a major concern. Battery life needs to be accounted for. After all, you don't want your drone to run low on battery while mapping a new site.

This will throw off the project management team and put delays on the entire process.

The range of control is also concerning. You control UAVs remotely from a great distance. But you want to ensure you can cover the entire site from the operator's location. Otherwise, you're likely to feel tethered to your devices, causing logistical issues.

Second, the payload limitation is a major concern. Transporting deliverables throughout your project site would be excellent, but most commercial drones can't manage much weight while operating optimally.

Third, you want your team to know how to actually operate the drones. Drones can be difficult to maneuver at first and come with a big learning curve. This means you'll need to invest in proper training programs.

Lastly, the potential for damages is high. After all, mines are hazardous. Debris is in the air.

Plus, underground drone use can be problematic. Obstacles underground are hard to detect.

But research teams are combining drone autonomy with sensors and intelligence systems. This enables drones to detect obstacles and types of terrain on its own. You won't need an expert user to avoid hazards.

However, damage is still a major concern. After all, you invest big money in your drone technology.

Fortunately, there are drone insurance policies that protect your business if your drone injures someone or causes damage. It also offers financial protection if you need to repair or replace your drone.

Where We Come In

Between licensing, operations, planning, and equipment, investing in drone technology can feel overwhelming.

Contact us today so we can manage your drone services for your next project.
About the Author

Marshall Miller & Associates performs a wide range of geological, environmental, hydrogeological and mining engineering services. MM&A’s seasoned staff of engineering personnel delivers design solutions for a variety of projects and industry-specific applications.