Business - A bird’s-eye view

By Robyn Grimsley

Drones have evolved from exclusive military use to a flexible, cost-effective tool in a variety of roles, with applications in the geological and mining industries that have taken off in recent years.A recent PwC report on the application of drone-powered solutions values the addressable market value thereof at over USD127-billion.

Remotely-piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, colloquially, drones, are making strong inroads into the mining sector.
Image credit: Pixabay

Remotely-piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, colloquially, drones, are making strong inroads into the mining sector. The ability of drones to achieve a bird’s-eye view of a site makes them uniquely suited to aerial mapping and scoping. Equipping the drones with suitable technology allows them to render terrain overviews accurately, even for hazardous or inaccessible terrain, and to transfer this data (including images) to operators for use in planning and tracking progress. All of this can be done in a matter of minutes, compared to the painstaking, time-consuming, and often costly alternatives.

Since drones are still considered to be a relatively new technology, many countries have legislative barriers against the use of drone-based solutions. PwC’s Clarity from above report examines the commercial applications of drone technology across industry sectors, including the broader applications for business, such as in the ability to capture unprecedented levels of data. The report points out that South Africa’s legislative framework is considered advanced in that it makes provision for the commercial use of drone-powered solutions, which must be registered with the South African Civil Aviation Authority. Commercial drone pilots must also attend an RPAS training programme and are required to carry valid third-party liability insurance.

Drones come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on their function and use.
Image credit: Robyn GrimsleyDrones come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on their function and use.
Image credit: Robyn GrimsleyDrones come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on their function and use.
Image credit: Robyn GrimsleyDrones come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on their function and use.
Image credit: Robyn Grimsley

Potential in opencast mining

Some of the primary areas in which drones can be used in opencast mining are in stockpile and topographic surveys, and slope monitoring and detection. Using drones to inspect stockpiles is simpler, faster, and safer than traditional manual methods, and surveys can be undertaken more regularly and with greater accuracy than ever before. Uneven terrain can cause difficult, hazardous working conditions for surveyors, and using drones for topographic surveys reduces wear and tear on equipment while simultaneously improving data collection and turnaround time. Ground movement in and around opencast mines, quarries, and dumps can damage or destroy expensive equipment, cause injury, and lead to lost production time. Drone surveys can be used to monitor ground movement and slope stability.

According to the PwC report, drone use has untapped potential to deliver significant value in the mining sector. While the commercial applications may not be immediately obvious, they can be used in dangerous and monotonous jobs. They are more cost-effective and versatile than helicopters, and faster, easier to navigate, and ‘greener’ than mining vehicles. Drones are primarily being tested and implemented in opencast mining, replacing labour-intensive methods of inspection, mapping, and surveying, as well as ensuring safety on the extraction site. The report identifies four main areas of drone applications in opencast mining — planning, exploration, environmental protection, and reporting — and estimates its value at USD4.3-billion.

  1. Planning: Opencast mines usually cover several square kilometres and drones can be used to map the area quickly, optimise hauling routes, and provide control information. 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.
  2. Exploration: Drone applications in mining exploration range from providing data-enabling resource calculation, through mapping a mining area, to management. They can be equipped to supply spare parts or take soil samples for deposit analysis, and can transport tools and lubricants for maintenance or repair work. They can also respond to emergency situations faster than people or other vehicles can.
  3. Environment: Drones can detect erosion, track changes in vegetation, and search for defects in mining infrastructure that may endanger the environment, more easily — and faster — than people on foot or manned aircraft can. Some countries use drones for surveillance, and China has deployed a number of drones to track illegal night-time emissions produced by opencast mines.
  4. Reporting: Drones can be used to monitor the production process in open-pit mines and for early detection of deviations and threats, enabling mine owners to 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, and could also be used to reduce extraction costs.

According to independent geological consultant Dr Nicolaas Steenkamp, while conducting aerial geological surveys was expensive and time consuming in the past, the introduction of UAVs with their ability to fly at low altitude at a slow, controlled speed along a predetermined flight path offers many advantages compared with the piloted vehicles used before. Compared to commercial satellite photography or photographs from manned aircraft, drones provide a stable, 360-degree aerial view, aiding in the mapping of geological structures over large surface areas. These drones can, if fitted with the correct camera equipment, capture high-resolution overlapping stereo-photogrammetric photos, which are used to generate aerial maps and 3-D models of the landscape.

A drone using thermal imaging technology on display at Drone Con 2017.
Image credit: Robyn GrimsleyProfessionals from various industries, including mining, gathered at the Drone Con 2017 conference to hear the latest about the use of drones in industry in South Africa. Image credit: Robyn Grimsley

Steenkamp explains that on the environmental side, drones can be used for erosion detection and inundation tracking, as well as for the long-term monitoring and tracking of changes in vegetation, and the movement of wild animals in protected and sensitive areas. Drones are also useful for hydrogeological investigation activities, including drainage and water management planning; the mapping of watersheds, drainage basins and water flow; and the thermal detection of groundwater inflows. And in geotechnical operations, drones can be used for looking at joint mapping in quarries; monitoring the surface stability of sidewalls, high walls and benches; and mapping steep, inaccessible inclined areas.

He adds that there are significant potential benefits to using UAVs in opencast mining operations, including assistance with short-term planning in the field (open-pit and dump management, haul route surface optimisation, and damage assessment and control) and long-term planning applications (haul road, dump and pit design, and control of mining in high-risk void areas). Drones can also be used to optimise drill-and-blast operations by providing up-to-date surface images for blast designs, collecting pre- and post-blast data, and identifying misfires and wall damage.

Using drones for topographic surveys reduces wear and tear on equipment while simultaneously improving data collection and turnaround time.
Image credit: Drone Analyst

Blasting optimisation

Speaking at the recent Drone Con conference held at Vodaworld in Midrand, blasting optimisation manager for AEL Mining Services, Hennie van Niekerk, explained how drones can be used to optimise blasting and analyse fragmentation. “How can drones assist in getting blasting improvements and improving efficiencies for a mine? First, you need a very accurate GPS. Then you need a high-resolution camera and you need to know the orientation so that you can contextualise the information. Once you have all of this, then the data capturing starts. And a drone is just a data capturing device — it’s how you use the data that will make the difference. You need the correct software, which needs to provide output in a useable format that you can use to improve your efficiency and improve your mining stream.”

Van Niekerk explained that using drones to assist in analysing fragmentation distribution can improve both accuracy and safety. “At the moment, we are doing it sort of manually; there’s a guy walking around with all the loose materials and rocks and it’s actually very dangerous. But if we get drones to assist with this and take the pictures, they know the exact altitude, how far away they are from the rock, and can triangulate the size of the rocks based on the pixels of the camera. Feeding this information into the appropriate software then gives you your fragmentation distribution.

“This is particularly important in the quarry market, where your earthmoving material is generally a bit smaller than your big draglines, but you want to move it as quickly as possible. If your fragmentation is small and designed for your shovel, you can get optimal efficiencies from your shovel and from your earthmoving vehicle — you can fill them optimally. If you have big boulders or lots of fines, you decrease the efficiencies of the material.”

The use of drones in opencast mining has a lot of potential. These are some of the possible applications that can be integrated into a mining operation.
Image credit: Airobotics

The future

Van Niekerk also touched on areas that are being investigated for future use. “We’re investigating a way to mark out blast points by inputting your survey data into your drone, which can then mark the ground for accuracy when drilling holes, because if holes can be drilled in exact spots, it improves the predictability and the performance of the explosives.

“Then there is high-speed filming, which is also an extremely valuable tool when it comes to blast optimisation. We use it to measure rock response to energy and calculate the optimised timing for the electronic detonators — with millisecond accuracy — to move that rock optimally and give the best fragmentation. The problem is that on a mine it’s not always possible to stand at the correct spot to film it, and this is another area where a drone could add a tremendous amount of value by allowing us to film every time.”

The accuracy, cost, and safety implications of using drone technology are massive. And as the technology continues to improve, and more technologies become available, the application of drones in the geological and mining industries will keep expanding.


PwC. 2016. Clarity from above: PwC global report on the commercial applications of drone technology.


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