Oct-14-13 By: Paul Snowdon; Kyle Burkholder
The mining industry is currently in a phase where innovation is quickly turning tip-of-the-spear technologies into disruptive new capabilities that present opportunities for strong differentiation and massive leaps in efficiency. One such area is related to the increasing sophistication of capabilities that drones provide. Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are either human-assisted or independent vehicles that perform activities while flying or hovering above the ground. While drones have been around for some time, the rapid development in affordable, lightweight, highly manoeuvrable drones equipped with the latest mining-related technologies has opened up a whole new range of opportunities for possible applications. The Mine of the Future Let’s return to the Mine of the Future—circa 2020—where drones are playing an integral role right across the value chain, both on and offsite, delivering value in the areas of exploration and development, safety and security and operational productivity. Among the planes at a regional mine airport in Western Australia, the newest member of FutureMine’s team is taxiing from its secure facility onto the runway and is about to take off and go to work for the day. Back in Perth at the Remote Operations Centre (ROC), the drone’s controller is maneuvering it into position and liaising with air traffic control for take-off. Drones are now regulars in air space and are monitored under air traffic control protocols. Today’s schedule is a busy one. The controller has already been collaborating with the exploration team at the ROC to confirm today’s exploration and analysis activities and is now ready to deliver. Sensors and processing equipment drastically smaller in size and exponentially more powerful compared to today’s equipment is now standard on-board drones including chemical, electromagnetic, gamma ray and biological sensors. After a few hours flying into inaccessible terrain and 50 degree Celsius summer temperatures, the drone reaches the target zone and starts to map and send back a live feed of multifaceted resource data—supported by real-time analytics delivering detailed maps and preliminary models to depth which the collaboration teams at the ROC analyse and develop further to determine where they will focus their resources and planning efforts. After completing the work in a number of hours, the drone is on its way back when it is redirected to support condition monitoring activities of a critical gas pipeline supplying one of FutureMine’s remote sites. ROC controllers are monitoring the predictive analytics on the asset and are highlighting emerging integrity issues and a potential disruption—they’d love some “eyes on the ground” to correlate the information with a visual. Soon the drone is delivering a live video feed with a 3D integrity model of the pipeline at the sector in question, in addition to vibration and thermal data to the Asset Health Team at the ROC to support their decision making. Live video and sound filtering is not physically and financially achievable across a long, geographically dispersed asset, but with drones it can be done in a targeted way, in real time. All in a day’s work The next day at one of FutureMine’s mine sites, the on-site drone is being prepared for another busy day. The first task of the day is monitoring the morning traffic speeds and road rules observance for the mine’s employees and contractors travelling to work along the public and mine lease road. Real-time data drives real-time performance management through the ROC with interventions on offending drivers taking place early in their journey via radio or via traffic wardens, potentially reducing serious safety incidents as well as driving an improved safety culture. From there, the drone is assigned to the Mine Rescue Team, who are conducting their regular exercises, simulating one of their diverse range of major safety incidents and exploring how they could more effectively respond through the use of drones. The team has modelled a dangerous plant explosion and are looking to test their options to rapidly deliver medical supplies including oxygen, radios and burn blankets into a highly dangerous environment. Conducting a wet run under simulated conditions, the onsite controller maneuvers a quad drone to safely and precisely deliver relief. At the same time, the drone is also able to take sensory readings on individuals for medical purposes and assess residual noxious gas levels to support further response planning. Still on site, the mining team now reassigns the drone to conduct a range of activities to improve their survey productivity, accuracy and cost. The onsite controller directs the drone to map the stockpiles and mine face areas. The information is then used to support photogrammetry, or the use of photos to map a geometric area and accurately map the stockpiles. This information is processed in real time enabling faster, more accurate gathering, processing and reconciliation of spatial data, supporting improved decision making and lowering survey costs. Once finished on the stockpiles, the drone is assigned to conduct basic time lapse photography in a number of areas across the site value chain to monitor the shifting physical properties of key assets. The combination of time lapse photography in conjunction with the sensory information set and predictive analytics enables the mine to closely monitor and safely manage large, geographically disperse assets that would benefit from aerial monitoring—such as an enormous leach pad and tailings dam assets. This also supports the management to meet their environmental obligations across the operation. For the last task of the day, the processing area has asked for the drone controller to conduct some preliminary observations to support the planning of an upcoming shutdown. The team would like some physical observations on the condition of key assets which are difficult and dangerous to access while the plant is running. The highly skilled operator is able to successfully navigate the drone in narrow and dangerous places and is soon providing a comprehensive feed of live images in addition to sensory information back to the planners in the ROC on key equipment (such large tanks and oxygen plants) to support the planning efforts. It’s been just another busy day for the versatile drone which has added significant value across the value chain at a modest cost. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Delivering Results The possibilities for the application of drones in mining are seemingly endless with new uses coming to light every week and more widespread utilization being reported across the industry. We see potential benefits across the value chain, from safety and security (e.g. search & rescue, monitoring / providing information from dangerous and difficult locations) to exploration & development (e.g. aerial photography and remote sensing) and productivity (e.g. stockpile mapping, mine mapping & reconciliation and time lapse photography) just to name a few. Leading mining businesses are rapidly making these kinds of capabilities available through their use and customization of drones. Turning these ideas into results of course requires coordinated planning across the value chain and focused execution. While we are likely on the front side of the hype cycle, we believe these capabilities will continue to mature and will transform the industry.