Mine Planning, Safety, and Regulations Meet Drones

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In my previous articles, I spoke about how drones are being using within civil construction and insurance to help with site progress tracking and claims fulfillment respectively. In this article, I’ll focus more on how drones are currently being using in Mining applications to plan, monitor safety, and ensure regulatory compliance. Of all of the industries currently using drones, the mining industry is best suited to take advantage of today’s technology and current regulatory climate.

Throughout the 20th century, underground mining was the dominating technique, but within the last decade, open put mining  has become more popular due to the cost and time savings. The ICMM reports that “Technology developments have made it possible to mine ores of declining grades and more complex mineralogy without increasing costs”. These new advances in mining equipment include the ability to capture aerial images of these mines, generate a 3D orthomosaic, and manage your site with a ten thousand foot view (more like 400 ft with today’s regulations). This fast growing industry is best equipped to take advantage of this new technology. In 2016, the consumption of construction aggregates worldwide was estimated at 43.3 billion metric tons (BMT) with a value of $350 billion. Production volume is anticipated to reach 62.9 BMT by 2024.

So what’s the value?
Drones and the data that drones can provide offer huge advantages throughout the mining and aggregates production life cycle including exploration, planning and permitting, operations, and reclamation. Traditionally mines would hire surveyors to come out and map their site to perform these operations. As UAVs become more workflow specific and easy to use, we will begin to see increased use on mines due to cost and time savings.

Today, mines are using drones for hundreds of different activities, including communication of weekly plans, haul road management (grades, berms, beams), stockpile management, safety assessments, pre and post blast analysis, and much, much more. Lucky Stone, the U.S’s largest family-owned producer of crushed stone, sand, and gravel, partnered with Airware because of its analytics tools developed specifically for the mining and aggregates industry. The system allows them to plan drone flights, capture high-quality data, analyze it, and create a survey-grade mine and quarry site map of up to 1,000 acres per day. But the added value is Airware’s software connections with Caterpillar’s machine telematics data.

So who are the people involved?
Mine Planners and Site Managers have the most to benefit from using UAV technology. A mine planner is responsible for determining the best way for a mining company to extract a resource from a site. They assist with setting management plans and deadlines, blast planning, haul road management, drainage assessment, all while ensuring safety at the mine. Site Managers are responsible for the day to day operations on site, ensuring correct production levels, shipments, and deadlines. Both of these personas as best suited to use the aerial models to complete their day to day activities while allowing them a complete picture to make quick, decisive decisions.

So what does the process look like?
The process for mining planning varies vastly on what the mine planner or site manager wish to perform on site. One common attribute across mines and aggregates sites, is the need to perform monthly stockpile inventory checks to ensure production levels are met, and shipments can be delivered. Previously, site managers would estimate their inventory levels based on the scales and conveyors on site, many of which provide inaccurate numbers, and can skew results. Once a year, they would perform a thorough inventory check by bringing in a surveyors to survey all of the piles of inventory on a site, a task that could take weeks. Today, using drones, site managers can perform weekly and month inventory checks with the utmost accuracy. By performing a short flight over their site, they can view a 3D model of their site and stockpiles, and automatically measuring the amount of volume and mass of material they have on site.
Mine Planning, on the other hand, is another challenge entirely. Mine Planners must ensure they can maximize the return on site, while ensuring the mine meets regulations and is safe for operation. Using the 3D model produced by drone, they can measure haul road grades and widths, measure the heights of beams and berms on haul roads, and measure cross-falls to ensure safety and compliance. A task that could take weeks, now takes a short drone flight.

So what does the future look like?
And that just about covers it. While this isn’t an exhaustive list of industries currently using drones, it does cover the primary industries currently leverage drone technology to improve their business processes. Within the next few years, we’ll begin to see far more industries making greater use of these technologies within utilities, transportation, and logistics.
If you have any comments, questions, or concerns, or have your own thoughts about where the industry is headed, comments, or shoot me a message. Thanks for reading!

Check out the other articles posted in this series below:

How Insurance Companies Are Using Drone Technology To Quickly Address Claims
Can Drones Shape The Future Of Civil Construction

About the Author:
Jay Mulakala has been exploring the drone industry for over 4 years, most recently as the Product Manager at Kespry, working to help build the next generation of cloud applications within Aggregates and Mining, Construction, and Insurance. Jay has also co-founded FreeSkies, a Bay-area drone startup that revolutionized consumer drones for use in professional photography and videography. He is a Part 107 certified remote pilot and offers private aerial photography and videography services through Skyfran Aerial Photography and Videography. He has also been rated as one of the most viewed writers in Drones on Quora. Find out more at www.JMulakala.com.

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