Drones are becoming increasingly popular in the mining industry due to numerous advantages, including better productivity, safety, and reduced costs. They have a range of applications in the sector, all tied to their ability to enhance data collection for various mining tasks.
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Drone Use on the Rise in Mining
The consultancy and research organization, GlobalData, recently published the results of four years’ worth of mine site operator surveys for both surface and underground mines. They found that drone use is on the rise across the industry. In 2018, only 44% of mines surveyed had invested in drones. This proportion has increased to 65% in 2022, with almost half of these respondents saying they had either “fully invested” or “made a considerable investment” in drones.
Drones are predominantly used for surveying and mapping tasks, but they have found practical applications in monitoring and inspection, managing site safety, managing tailings dams, assessing blasts, and optimizing haulage roads. Over four-fifths (83%) of respondents using drones use them for surveying and mapping.
The survey also found that mine operators in Australasia were the most likely to have adopted drone technology on their sites. Three-quarters of mines in this region had either fully invested in drones or made a considerable investment in the technology in 2022.
Surveying mineral landscapes is traditionally a time-consuming and expensive process to undertake. However, mine operators can save about 90% of these costs by utilizing drones instead of piloted aircraft.
Drones can also collect a practically unlimited amount of aerial data, including fine measurements. This is because they can simultaneously and automatically capture high-resolution orthoimages.
Monitoring and Inspection
In the GlobalData survey, 68% of respondents who were using drones said they were using them for monitoring and inspection. Drones can automatically collect large quantities of data, covering vast areas with more precision than in piloted aircraft or ground-based surveys. This makes them well suited for a range of monitoring and inspection tasks.
Monitoring and inspection tasks are essential for maintaining a safe working mine. Drones identify rock fall hazards, extreme humidity, gas leaks, dust explosions, and floods.
Drones are also used to inspect mining equipment. This saves considerable expense and time and enables a more thorough running assessment of mining equipment to take place throughout the life cycle of the mine.
Drones are also employed to monitor the network of haulage roads used to transport materials around a mining site. The quality of this road network directly impacts the mine’s efficiency and productivity, and constantly monitoring them enables maintenance that keeps traffic flowing as smoothly as possible.
Among the greatest monitoring and inspection challenges for mines is management of material stockpiles. These piles can reach extreme heights and areas, and their shape is almost constantly changing as the material is added to and removed from the pile.
Effectively managing these large, amorphous semi-structures has several discrete advantages. First and foremost is worker safety, as poorly piled materials can collapse and crush workers almost without warning. Using drones for stockpile management also helps mine operators with effective financial reporting, production backup, and improving grade quality.
Tailings Dam Management
Over a fifth of respondents to the GlobalData survey who used drones in their operations used them for tailings dam monitoring and management.
Drones enable operators to analyze tailings data, ensuring the tailings dam maintains structural integrity and supporting designs for expanding tailings dams where necessary.
Tailings dams are surveyed manually by workers on foot. This is a time-consuming and relatively dangerous operation, so using drones is a natural choice.
Site Safety Management
The third most cited reason for employing drones in mines was site safety management, with 44% of respondents to the GlobalData survey using their drones for this purpose in 2022.
Drones capture images of difficult-to-reach, volatile, or otherwise dangerous areas. With drones, these areas can be constantly surveyed, and safety risks identified at the earliest opportunity.
Trends in Drone Technology for Mines
As well as a general increase in the use of drones in the mining sector, there are a few key trends affecting their use and functionality in the industry.
Scalability is a significant technological development for industrial drones across several sectors. This is to say that drone manufacturers are increasingly able to scale up production and reduce costs as the drone market continues to grow. The result will be more affordable drones, driving more widespread adoption, which will continue to drive down the price of the technology.
Three-dimensional modeling is another critical change occurring in the drone sector right now. Drones for mining now often come equipped with radar or LiDAR sensors which are used to make 3D models of site areas.
Drone swarm technology is another future development direction for industrial drones, including mining. This depends on solutions to the technical challenge of managing and controlling multiple drones in close proximity to one another.
Companies such as Cisco are developing cloud-based infrastructures through which multiple drones can be controlled automatically.
In general, as a technology still very much in its infancy, drones will continue to develop in terms of availability, cost, and feature capacity. This will likely drive a continuing rise in the use of drones in the mining sector.
References and Further Reading
Drone use is rising in mines. [Online] Mine Australia. Available at: https://mine.nridigital.com/mine_australia_jul22/mining_drones_surveying_mapping (Accessed on 26 September 2022).
Drones in Mining: Drone Applications in Mining. (2021) [Online] Mining Technology. Available at: https://www.mining-technology.com/comment/drone-applications-mining/ (Accessed on 26 September 2022).
Drones in Mining: Technology Trends. (2021) [Online] Mining Technology. Available at: https://www.mining-technology.com/comment/drones-in-mining-technology-trends/ (Accessed on 26 September 2022).
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