Rio Tinto increases drone use in mining operations

Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto had a really good 2020 and they have drones to thank for it.

Alright; we might have exaggerated a bit – the drones did not fly into mine shafts to do the heavy lifting that is normally done by humans and heavy machines – but the mining company did increase its use of the unmanned vehicles for some underground operations, which were necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Minimising the risk of COVID-19 transmission among our FIFO employees and contractors was essential to continue operating safely, and in compliance with government directives,” said Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson, in a statement that accompanies the company’s 2020 annual report. “From March to August, we implemented longer rosters (two-week-on, two-week-off) for thousands of people to reduce the risk of spreading the virus by reducing the frequency of travel in and out of the Pilbara (one of the company’s mines in Australia).

“To service these changes, we secured additional charter flights, ensuring compliance with physical distancing guidelines by spacing people appropriately on planes and in airports. To comply with travel restrictions, we also relocated more than 700 employees with specialist skills to Perth so they could continue in their roles.

“We increased our use of drones and mine pit cameras and introduced video headsets, so we could continue to conduct visual inspections of tailings facilities and equipment while complying with travel restrictions and physical distancing requirements. At the Oyu Tolgoi underground project, we used Vuzix smart glasses – based on augmented reality – letting technical experts from all over the world work with local teams.”

Drone companies nowadays can make unmanned vehicles that can fly into claustrophobic places like mine shafts, underground tunnels and drain pipes that have neither internet access nor GPS. The Elios from Swiss manufacturer Flyability is one such drone.

Rio Tinto employs approximately 45,000 people in some of the biggest mining operations in 35 countries including South Africa, Guinea-Bissau, and Madagascar, mining a number of minerals like producing iron ore, copper, diamonds, gold and uranium. Last year they made $9.8billion net and contributed $47billion more to the economies of the countries in which their mining operations are based.

But the mining giant also courted controversy last May when it demolished a sacred cave in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia, which had evidence of 46,000 years of continual human occupation, and was considered the only inland site in Australia to show signs of continual human occupation through the last Ice Age. Acting on permission to destroy the site that had been given in 2013 under the state Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, Rio Tinto destroyed the site anyway, despite acknowledging that they had three alternative options to preserve the site, and despite spirited resistance from the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples, who are the local land custodians.

The company later apologised, and again reissued that apology in their annual report.

But they did take pride in their technological approach to occupational safety and health, which saw them achieve zero fatalities at all their workplaces in a 2020 annus horribilis that saw a virulent virus put everything in the world to a standstill.

“The protocols we put in place include those in line with government guidance, directives and best practice advice from leading medical experts and international health organisations,” the annual report said. “Our measures included: travel restrictions, social distancing, increased personal hygiene, and greater support for employees in areas such as mental health, managing fatigue and adjusting to working from home as well.

“We also changed the way we worked on the ground. For example, we implemented stronger controls on access to our sites and used technology – such as drones and mine pit cameras – to conduct monitoring activities, reducing the need to visit site. Our health and safety teams put a range of safeguards in place: rooms were measured and marked out to indicate maximum capacity, crosses marked on floors to indicate physical distancing guidelines, and we increased the frequency of cleaning high-touch areas.”


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