Drones are an emerging technology in multiple industries, from the military to law enforcement, search and rescue, entertainment, and mining. This article will discuss the challenges the mining industry faces in relation to the growing use of drones.
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Regulatory Hurdles of Drone Usage in Mines
As drones are an emerging technology, they are subject to intense scrutiny and regulation by public bodies. Historically, nations like the US have been reluctant to relax safety laws in favor of innovation, citing concerns with their use. These concerns must be addressed comprehensively by mining companies.
In the US, for example, the FAA governs all air traffic, setting out regulations governing their safe use. Similar bodies in the UK and EU have also been reluctant to relax rules, especially in areas with high air traffic. Companies seeking to foster innovation in the drone space must comply with these government bodies.
Another critical concern that presents regulatory hurdles for mining companies is security. Drones could easily be hacked, allowing bad actors to take them over, with potentially disastrous consequences. Robust security features must, therefore, be enabled on drones.
Mining companies must seek and secure the appropriate licenses and permits for the specific geographic area in which they intend to conduct mining operations, ensuring full compliance with local, state, and national regulations.
Environmental Conditions Affect Drones in Mining
Environmental conditions can significantly affect drone performance due to the harsh or remote environments mining is carried out in.
Inclement weather can cause problems for exploration drones, dust can clog rotors and sensitive equipment, and GPS-denied underground areas can cause them to become lost.
Temperature extremes, humidity, confined spaces, poor lighting conditions and visibility, and different air velocities can affect drones used in underground mines, making them difficult to fly. Accessing unreachable locations is near impossible for drone operators, limiting the capabilities of this emerging technology.
There are some ways to circumvent these issues, however. Onboard sensors, autonomous navigation capabilities, and artificial intelligence (AI) gives modern drones the technological edge over previous generations, improving their ability to cope with harsh or unexpected environmental conditions.
Signal propagation is a particularly persistent problem for drone operators in underground mines. Obstacles and infrastructure can easily absorb signals, limiting the range a drone can be flown at. If it loses signal, a drone may find it difficult to return to base.
Solving signal propagation is a crucial concern for mine operators. To solve this issue, transmission systems should be installed on drones, allowing them to navigate the twists and turns of mines and operate at their optimal range.
Data Processing and Analysis
The modern mine is a data-heavy industrial ecosystem. Millions of data points can be created during daily operations, from weather and environmental conditions to the movement of assets, topography, geology, and many other factors unique to these working environments.
Drones must, therefore, be able to collect, process, and analyze data using robust software and analytical tools. Moreover, central data processing hubs, which drones feed information back to in real-time, must be robust and capable enough to efficiently analyze the data drones collect in mines.
Safety and Security
Drones can become a hazard if not appropriately operated by trained workers. They could threaten air traffic and workers in underground mines' confined spaces. Sensors, cameras, and GPS positioning can mitigate collision risks, and conforming with local laws can avoid wider problems.
Another key area of concern in the wider drone industry is cybersecurity. Drones can be hacked and taken over if robust security protocols are not implemented. This can lead to sensitive data being lost and, at worst, can provide a backdoor into critical systems, disrupting mining activities and becoming a danger to life.
The significance of cybersecurity has escalated to the extent that the US government imposed restrictions on the export of drones by a major manufacturer last year, citing national security and foreign policy apprehensions. Within the realm of drones, apprehensions about GPS spoofing, downlink intercepts, and data exploitation are rapidly mounting.
Technical Limitations of Drones
Despite advances in sensor technology, AI, machine learning, and other key components in modern drones, some technical limitations persist.
Flight time, range, payload capacity, and battery life can limit the operational effectiveness of drones used in mining. Furthermore, integrating drones with other equipment and legacy systems can be challenging. However, technological innovation can overcome these challenges.
For instance, hybrid power systems can overcome battery limitations, making these systems more attractive to mining companies. Like any technology, innovation breeds more capable drone systems that can be utilized for project-critical purposes.
Cost Considerations of Using Drones in Mining
Commercial and industrial drones cost more than hobbyist models, ranging from $1000 to over $20,000 for high-end devices.
High initial costs can be difficult to factor in, especially with tight budgets. However, labor savings and improved efficiency make drones an increasingly attractive option for companies.
Drones can give a significant ROI for companies: traditionally costly equipment such as helicopters for surveying is not needed, and while initial capital investment may be high for a fleet of drones, savings can be made in a relatively short period.
As well as equipment cost, staff training can be a roadblock to drone uptake in the mining industry. Companies must invest heavily in skill development and specialized training, which can be time-consuming and costly, especially with tight margins.
Understanding mining processes and safety protocols is essential for drone operators, with certification and ongoing training critical for companies that wish to employ drones to save on costs and efficiently expand their operations.
The Future of Drones in Mining
Drones are fast becoming a ubiquitous technology in the mining industry, carrying out tasks including surveying and exploration, tailings dam management, asset surveillance, monitoring, inspection, and stockpile management. However, this article has demonstrated that their use has some key challenges.
While environmental conditions, cybersecurity, and regulatory hurdles are roadblocks to widespread drone adoption in the mining industry, benefits, including worker safety, increased productivity, lifetime cost savings, and real-time data analysis, mean that drones are making inroads into the sector.
Read More: How Automated Drones are Positively Changing the Mining Industry
References and Further Reading
GlobalData Thematic Intelligence (2021) Drones in Mining: Regulatory Trends [Online] mining-technology.com. Available at: https://www.mining-technology.com/comment/drones-mining-regulatory-trends
Robotics Biz (2021) Drones In Underground Mines – Challenges And Potential Solutions [Online] roboticsbiz.com. Available at: https://roboticsbiz.com/drones-in-underground-mines-challenges-and-potential-solutions
Arampatzis, A. (2022) Cybersecurity and Drones: How to Address the Security Threats [Online] tripwire.com. Available at: https://www.tripwire.com/state-of-security/cybersecurity-and-drones-how-to-address-the-security-threats