The mining industry is one of the sectors where drone usage has untapped potential to deliver significant value for businesses. The commercial applications for drones in the mining industry are not so obvious at first sight; however, they can replace human in dangerous
and monotonous jobs. Moreover, they are more cost-effective and versatile than helicopters; they are also faster, easier to navigate and emit less pollution than mining vehicles.
Drones are currently being tested and implemented mostly in open-cast mining, where they are replacing labour-intensive methods of inspection, mapping and surveying, as well as ensuring safety on the extraction site. We are also observing further developments in underground mining.
In open-cast mining we identify four main areas of drone applications: planning, extraction support, environmental protection and reporting. To assess the addressable market of drone powered solution in this industry PwC looked
at particular cost categories and estimates the value at $4.3bn
Open-cast mines usually cover several square kilometres, on varying surface levels, which translates into long routes for land vehicles and crew. Drones can be used to quickly map the area, optimise hauling routes and provide control information. They enable mine operators to communicate their plans, make reports, receive updates on work progress and manage pit and dump areas. They can easily assess and monitor potential storm damage; provide geotechnical and hydrological data; assist in the design of haul roads, dumps and pits; map steep, inaccessible inclines; and monitor surface stability.
Drone applications in mining exploration range from providing data enabling resource calculation, through mapping a mining area, to management. UAVs can be equipped with special features to supply spare parts or take soil samples for deposit analysis. They are able to transport tools and lubricants required for maintenance or repair work. They can respond to emergency situations
faster than people or other vehicles; transport medicines and rescue equipment; monitor the health of injured people until help arrives; and automatically react to various events.
For example, to meet the specific needs of the mining industry, Insitu built the GeoRanger drone, equipped with a magnetometer to store and interpret data related to the earth’s surface. Data from the sensor can be stored on board or sent to a ground control station.
Drones are able to detect erosion, track changes in vegetation and search for defects in mining infrastructure that may endanger the environment, more easily, and definitely faster, than people on foot or manned aircraft can. Some countries use drones for surveillance. In combating air pollution, China has deployed a number of drones to track illegal night-time emissions produced by open-cast mines.
Drones can also be used to monitor the production process in open pit mines and for early detection of deviations and threats. By creating a digital model of an open-pit mine’s current state of work progress and detecting changes in the structure of the mine (landslides, damages to infrastructure), mine owners can increase safety and decrease costs
of controlling processes. Early detection of irregularities and correct assessment of the open pit allows for quick response and better planning of work. It would also boost automatization of the whole extraction process which will result in decreased extraction costs.
Drones typically use GPS technology to pinpoint their locations, which is not possible underground. However, a group of researchers seems to have overcome this limitation, using 3D scanning technology to create digital maps of underground spaces. Maps can be uploaded to the drones, allowing them to move smoothly through passages below the earth’s surface. Drones underground can use laser scanners to measure mine drifts. It is worth mentioning that Clickmox, in co-operation with Glencore, has produced a small drone especially designed to clear boreholes of rocks blocking the way from the surface to a mine’s lower levels.