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The Rise of the UAVs

As offsite mine management relies on timely and accurate information from the mine site, unmanned vehicles and robotics are becoming a faster and safer way of data collection for the mining industry.

An aerial view of the mining operations captured using a flying
data capturing system. High resolution imagery from different
vantage points offers improved offsite management of mining

An aerial view of the mining operations captured using a flying data capturing system.

High resolution imagery from different vantage points offers improved offsite management of mining operations.

The use of UAVs, or drones as they are more popularly known, is mostly associated with surveillance and war. As safety and environment regulations get stricter, UAVs as a platform for collecting imagery data is gaining popularity in the mining sector today. Drop in the cost of the hardware required to fabricate and maintain them and the advances in sensor and camera technologies along with the availability of light and long lasting power packs has made the mass production of UAVs possible.

Offsite mine management relies on timely and accurate information from the mine site. Operating a mine without an accurate and current picture of the mine is operating blind. UAVs provide a highly detailed and up-to-the-minute picture of the mine that operators need for effective planning and management, says Kareem Shehata, Lead Engineer (Autonomous Systems), Clearpath Robotics. Robotic ground units, self driving trucks, aerial surveys, aerial volumetric calculations, and aerial geospatial mapping would not be possible without geospatial interface, adds Stephen Myshak, CEO, Isis Geomatics.

A number of different types of surveys and reconciliations traditionally carried out by workers are now being done by unmanned vehicles. They offer the ability to automatically fly certain pre-determined routes and provide information in a fraction of the time a worker would take. This even includes working out the volume of certain water storage facilities ‑— an unmanned boat can now survey the bottom and contribute to the overall volume measurements. “I think the latest technology, apart from general advances in most areas of traditional positioning technology, is in the use of drones or unmanned vehicles for various tasks,” says Jason Nitz, of Newmont Boddington Gold, Australia.

The very fact that these flying data collection platforms can be managed by a single person and carried in the field has drastically reduced the mining industry’s dependence on high resolution satellite imagery, though the data collected by the imaging sensors on board the UAVs has boosted the remote sensing industry — especially the software required for the processing and extraction of information from the digital data acquired by the sensors and cameras onboard the UAVs. “Remote sensing integrated within GIS as core technology and a respective core driver continuously takes a more important role,” says Stefan Naumann GNSS Business Manager, Topcon Europe Positioning.

The typical benefits are quite obvious. The health and safety of the employees on the site is a critical component of every mine, and the downtime of a part of a mine while survey work has to be carried out is enormous. “Just think about the amount of time a survey crew could save when utilising stateof- the-art remote sensing technology such as UAS. This free capacity could be utilised in managing the mine better, as well as being more productive taking all environmental and economic aspects into account,” he adds.

New technologies, including robotics and UAVs, follow the trend of ‘faster, cheaper, better’. In this case, geospatial data is produced faster, with more detail, and lower costs instead of waiting for weeks for a new survey of a mine site, says Shehata. Clearpath’s UAV solutions produce accurate data in a matter of hours and at a fraction of the cost.

The redundancy of ground control points and yet achieving 2-5 cm accuracy is today possible from digital imagery acquired by the SIRUS UAS from MAVinci which is in strategic partnership with Topcon. “Having an airplane flying with RTK accuracy combined with highly sensitive and detailed cameras, and having incredibly intelligent software at the front-end, shows and demonstrates the possibilities of UAS usage as a highly professional survey tool,” says Naumann. He also adds that since the quantum of investment is very reasonable, even small operators of mines have evinced interest. Apart from the big mine companies, the success stories also come from small mines that were able plan their work with more cost efficiency when compared to carrying out traditional survey methods — up to the situation where mining companies that were already using remote sensing technology, but in a manner that kept them from being even more productive. Another story is about Slovakia’s largest mining company recently adopting a UAV-based survey to determine the effects of land subsidence due to its underground coal operations at Bane Novaky. Over a 12-month period, a number of surveys were conducted over the 300 hectares area (a 1500-meterby- 2000-meter area).

The major hurdle in for the UAV industry is the lack of policy and guidelines by the regional aviation authorities. Very few countries have a proper policy, and Shehata feels that Clearpath is fortunate to be operating in Canada. The SFOC (special flight operating certificate) process is consistent across the country, and allows operators to make a case for the safe use of their vehicles to get their missions done. With Canada leading the way in these types of policies, there are now other jurisdictions that are starting to open up their rules to allow the commercial use of UAVs.