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The use of drone technology in mining industry has yielded monumental results. According to GlobalData, many companies in the mining industry are embracing drone applications due to improved productivity and enhanced safety of operations.
Drones are excellent tools for precision mining. They can access tighter spaces in complex mine sites and collect accurate data more efficiently.
Beyond that, drones maximize the use of time. They also cut mining labor costs significantly. Unlike humans, these devices can cover a vast land area in a short period.
This article focuses on drone technology and how it can optimize productivity, enhance safety, and improve data quality in the mining industry.
Table of contents:
Why Use Drones in Mining?
Drones offer extensive benefits to the mining industry. These include:
1. Accurate Geospatial Data:
Traditionally, mine site data was collected at total stations using GNSS surveying. In most cases, the data points weren’t enough for one stockpile.
That has changed since drones can survey and collect thousands of data points. Several data sets significantly improve the quality of data collected.
2. Improved Worker Safety:
Whether it’s mapping or exploration, drones can access the hard-to-reach spaces in the mine sites.
Accessing these places eliminates the risk of workers having to walk through dangerous zones with the traditional surveying equipment for resource estimates.
Workers are only trained on how to operate the drones from safer locations. Yet, drones undertake all these activities without causing disruptions to any operations underway on the site.
3. Faster Data Collection:
When drones are used for surveys, they collect data 30 times faster than the traditional methods. Within just one hour, miners can collect several thousands of data points.
It doesn’t matter the area’s terrain, or whether the resources are hidden underground, drones can explore just about everywhere. Faster data collection also means rapid data turn-around.
The traditional methods are often slow and labor-intensive. It could take days to get a few hundred data sets.
4. Reduced Mining Cost in the Long Term:
With a quick turnaround in data collection, costs are significantly cut down in the long term. The traditional methods are slow and labor-intensive, which means that many resources are used to achieve fewer results.
What Are Drones Used for in Mining?
Thanks to the massive benefits, drones have found extensive applications in the mining industry. Here are the common uses of drones in mining.
1. Stockpile Management:
Measurements involving stockpiles are done to provide crucial data. Naturally, stockpiles come in irregular shapes and may have craters.
Drones make mapping and data collection easy, even in these scenarios. They’re fast and provide precision data.
With drones, aerial photographs of a site and its stockpiles are taken to help create point clouds, digital terrain and surface models, and 3D mining site reconstruction.
Data from the point clouds are used to calculate the stockpile value. Since high-quality data was collected, the calculations are usually very accurate. The result is a better stockpile inventory with consistent data.
Stockpile management could be a costly venture without drones. But drones make that look easy at lower costs. Frequent data collection due to quick turn-arounds means there’s always more and better data for weekly and monthly management.
With numerous data to look at, it’s easy to forecast mineral stocks available on the mine site. This improves the stockpile inventory and the management of operations as a whole.
2. Monitoring of the Mine Site:
The images taken by drones are used to design quarry or mine site models. Mine managers use these models to manage site operations effectively.
There’s a regular visual assessment of the site from the aerial images taken by drones. Haul roads are assessed to determine if they’re fit for trucks and other machinery leading in or out of the site.
If the roads aren’t good enough, they’re redesigned to meet the standard requirements as per the law.
Regular site monitoring and its environs also help control water and sediment flows in a site. Still, flow and tailings pond operations models can be created from the drone photographs.
These models make controlling water supply, balance, and storage easy. It’s also possible to prevent any adverse hydrological changes using the same models. This action improves the overall operational management.
3. Identification and Mitigation of Hazards:
Captured data on drones help experts to forecast potential hazards and risks in a mine site. Drones take precise images, which are assessed regularly, even in high-traffic or difficult-to-access areas.
Slopes on the tailings dams are also monitored closely. Yet, there’s no risk of manual surveying to know the state of these dams. Drones give that data regularly and clearly.
With this data, mining companies can prevent any potential disasters like the 2019 Brumadinho tailings dam collapse in Brazil that killed over 250 people and devastated a vast agricultural land.
Companies can maintain these dams and keep their structural integrity intact. And, they’re able to do this early
4. Drones are Used Before and After Drilling or Blasting:
Drones are extensively used to create surface models of the areas to be blasted and drilled. Engineers then use these models to plan and analyze their mining operations.
By using the maps and models, they calculate the expected volume from the site. After drilling, drones also collect data to help compute how much has been extracted and how much is left for future mining.
From a logistical point of view, this is a critical analysis. Managers use this data to know how many trucks may be needed for transferring mines during any given operation.
5. Surveying and Mapping:
There’s no better work for drones than surveying and mapping mine sites. A team of several surveyors would take weeks to collect data and map a prospective mining landscape. A piloted plane can as well take plenty of time and deliver fewer data sets.
However, drones would take significantly less time to survey the landscape and provide high-quality unlimited data. Reportedly, drones can save mining companies up to 90% of the cost-per-hour.
Drones also capture high-resolution images with fine measurements. These images usually are used to create surface models and 3D constructions.
Types of Datasets From Mining Drones:
The type of datasets you get from a drone depends on the camera installed and the processing software used. Here are the different datasets that are collected.
As a detailed 2D mapping output, the orthomosaic map features the X and Y axis of a site. These maps help miners determine the site’s scope, monitor site occupation, and measurement of point to point or surface distance.
The map comes in formats such as geoTIFF (.tiff), KML tiles (.png/.kml).
3D Point Cloud:
A 3D point cloud map features millions of points with X, Y, and Z coordinates. The map provides a crisp vision of a mine site’s surface in a 3D visual. It also shows the RGB value or color information.
Models created from these maps offer accurate volume measurements and visual insights of sites for better planning. And whether the landscape has inaccessibility challenges or not, drones can always avail these maps for issue detection by experts.
File formats include .las, .laz, .ply, .xyz.
3D Textured Mesh:
The 3D textured mesh features a high-quality three-dimensional texture of a site’s surface, walls, and edges. If there are hard-to-reach areas like slopes and pits, the 3D textured mesh map offers coverage.
File formats exist in .ply, .fbx, .dxf, .obj, .pdf.
For slope monitoring, contour lines are super-important in mining activities. Contour lines are generated from the topographic maps. These maps obtain the X and Y coordinates from the aerial drone data.
The map formats include .dxf, .shp.
Digital Terrain Model:
Digital Terrain Model or DTM maps are vital as far as identifying stockpiles can go. Besides, they also help miners monitor pit changes and model water flows and wall collapses.
DTMs are created after unwanted objects like buildings and machines are filtered from drone images. Each pixel from DTMs contains 2.5D details, including the X, Y, and Z coordinates of the highest points.
File formats include GeoTiff (.tif).
How to Use a Drone to Measure Stockpiles?
Drones are used to measure stockpiles volumes, which comes in handy when comparing current data to previous ones. It gives managers a good taste of the site’s progress.
Therefore, the importance of drones for stockpile inventory management cannot be understated. The actionable data that drones collect is used for stockpile volume calculations.
Here are the steps on how to measure stockpiles using a drone:
- Fly the drone to capture the site data – the images and ground control data. A drone flies faster and collects unlimited data from several hundred points in a short time.
- Use the photogrammetry software to process the data into 3D models. Companies need a photogrammetrist on board to do this work. However, they can always use third-party experts, which is easy and cost-effective.
- Analyze the site using special software such as Propeller Platform. This is done simply by drawing around the stockpile boundary.
The results from the data visualization software can now be shared with other stakeholders to make informed decisions. The information obtained can help site managers to track the progress and take stock of the material inventory.
Drones in Underground Mines:
Accessing underground mine sites is nearly an impossible mission, especially when using traditional equipment and infrastructure. Still, it’s a dangerous undertaking that puts the lives of miners at great risk.
However, drones can now easily access and map underground and environmentally-impossible mines. The introduction of Hovermap underground drone technology in 2020 to inspect inaccessible areas of mines was a considerable development.
Hovermap autonomous drones had been tested successfully earlier in 2017. It was the world’s first autonomous beyond line-of-sight drone flight.
During the Northern Star Resources Jundee Gold Mine test located in Western Australia, a drone flew autonomously 600 meters below the surface.
Underground mine drones collect data through Simultaneous Localization Mapping, abbreviated as SLAM. This process enables drones to collect information such as the shape of a cave underground.
The drones can also record videos, take photos, and identify geological features.
Even more, they don’t need external services like GPS location, which can’t function in underground environments. Instead, they employ SLAM to collect very accurate images for cave systems and structures.
Frankly, underground drone technologies like Hovermap upgrade traditional systems, better known as conventional cavity monitoring systems (CMS). CMS were the only means of accessing underground mines. But they were limited in so many ways. These included physical constraints such as length of pole and cave dimensions.
Best Drones for Surveying Mines:
1. Phantom 4 RTK:
Phantom 4 RTK drone from DJI is a solid mapping drone with premium features and excellent functionality. Perfect for low-altitude areas, the drone is suited to small area surveys and mapping.
Phantom 4 RTK is equipped with a 20MP sensor for high-quality photogrammetry. Plus, it enjoys an inbuilt RTK module for real-time data collection.
It’s also compatible with DJI Terra, software for 3D mapping. All functions can be automated and customized through a mobile device.
Phantom RTK is an awesome entry-level drone for mapping smaller areas.
2. Matrice M300 RTK:
Matrice M300 RTK is a powerful drone for commercial mining solutions, including surveying and mapping. The drone is efficient and offers high-level flight performance.
Matric M300 RTK provides a 55-minute flight time. The drone combines intelligence with reliability thanks to advanced AI features.
It offers a 15Km maximum transmission which is phenomenal. Furthermore, the drone boasts a high IP-45 rating, indicating its ability to resist extreme weather elements. Matrice M300 RTK is a superb aircraft with a brilliant camera combination.
As a whole, drone technology has revolutionized the mining industry from many angles. From improved productivity to high-quality, accurate data, the benefits are vast.
What’s more, the safety of workers is now guaranteed. They can operate drones from the comfort of the control unit, which could be far away from the minefields.
With drones, surveys in mine sites are easily repeatable. This is because drones have a quick turnaround compared to the traditional methods of data collection.
Best of all, drones are being deployed in underground mines successfully in what was initially an impossible venture.