It’s no secret that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) aka drones, are fast-becoming one of the most valuable tools for commercial mapping, surveying and inspections. An industry set to benefit from drone technology on a colossal scale is mining and aggregates, with its everlasting requirement for consistent aerial surveys of mines and quarries.
With the world’s largest mining companies investing plentiful resources into drone technology, how are they currently using drones in the field, what are the key benefits and what can we expect to see in the future for drones in the mining industry?
Monitoring, Maintenance and Mapping
In recent years, many organisations have harnessed drone technology to provide them with accurate aerial data across various mining and aggregate operations, including:
Stockpile Inventory Management
Mine and quarry operators are now able to achieve aerial data collection of valuable assets such as stockpiles volumes, where accuracy is paramount to their operations. Once the aerial imagery has been collected and uploaded to their preferred drone data software, the volume cut and fill can be automatically calculated by measuring the volume between the base-layer and surface of the stockpile.
Site Surveys and Blast Planning
Aerial site surveys provide mining companies with an accurate model of the worksite, so they can better monitor projects whilst building up regular visuals to monitor progress and ensure any deviations are swiftly rectified.
Accurate drone data leads to a significant reduction of the time and operating costs associated with pre-blast area surveys, whilst creating accurate 3D pre-blast and post-blast digital elevation models (DEMs), that include rock type variation and analysis.
Road Safety and Access Monitoring
The ability to achieve regular infrastructure surveys is a crucial part of site management. Being able to assess road hazards and ground conditions ensures operational integrity and improved safety standards, whilst optimising loading and stockpile locations leads to improved site management and an increase in productivity.
Water management plans form an integral part of daily mining and quarrying operations. Extraction of groundwater and surface water must be well-planned with drones providing crucial elevation data for this purpose.
Not only are drones required in daily mining and quarry operations on the surface, but they have the potential to transform the way that subterranean mines are mapped. We’ll come back to this later on…
Increased Safety and Cost-Efficiency
Drones are driving profitability of sites by saving resources such as time, money and manpower, with the latter often leading to improved employee safety.
As proven by leading drone solution developers Kespry in a use case, their drone-based aerial intelligence platform flew 150 acres in under 30 minutes leading to an 84% reduction in labour costs and an 80% increase in data accuracy.
Supporting this data, Jim Gawthrop, VP at York Building Products, explains; “We can fly as often as we want across all of our sites to make sure that our production numbers are right on target, we no longer have costly surprises. Bottom line, it’s about getting the right information – and more information – just when we need it, instead of waiting for a manned aerial survey.”
DroneDeploy previously reported that Nelson Aggregates swapped their twice-yearly site surveys from ground-based to aerial and saved 228 man hours, which translates to a total cost-saving of $28,500 USD across six quarry sites.
The enhanced data accuracy and reliability being achieved through the use of drone technology also results in reduced financial risk for an organisation, by avoiding both overproduction and insufficiency so that customer orders are able to be fulfilled on time.
The Future of Drones in Mining: BVLOS, LiDAR and 3D Point Clouds
So, what does the future hold for drones in mining and aggregates?
Australian start-up Emesent recently received substantial investment from The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to commercialise its first product, Hovermap.
Hovermap is a LiDAR mapping and autonomy payload built for industrial drones – like the DJI M600 Pro – allowing them to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) into inaccessible parts of a mine to explore and map them. It offers revolutionary efficiency, safety and operational insights to challenging above ground, underground and GPS-denied environments in the mining industry.
Watch the video below to see Hovermap’s subterranean mapping capabilities:
Tip: Fast-forward to 02:30
This ability to map an inaccessible mine using LiDAR and drone technology BVLOS is truly a game-changer for the mining industry.
As Dr Stefan Hrabar, co-founder of Emesent explains, “Hovermap enables the mining industry to safely inspect inaccessible areas of underground mines, while improving the type and quality of data collected to unlock new insights.
“This includes comparing the stope design to the actual post-blast shape to detect over-break and under-break, identification of geotechnical structures and accurate post-blast volume reconciliations.
“The data we gather improves a mine’s productivity and provides a better understanding of conditions underground, all without sending surveyors and miners into potentially hazardous areas.”