The case for drone technology in mining
Fifty-one miners died in South Africa last year.
In statistical terms, the figure has fallen to record lows, as safety standards have improved of late. But still, losing 51 breadwinners is a fact that should keep mine owners and investors awake at night; and it has, as mining investments have been falling in recent times, on the back of poor safety standards on the mining sites.
Progressive mining entities have been taking active steps to improve safety on their premises, though. Anglo American, for example, has opened a drone wing, to take over some operations that are too dangerous for human power.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles can be a safe substitute of human resources in certain mining situations. They form part of the Global Smart Mining Solution market, which accounted for $9.20 billion last year, and is expected to reach $25.34 billion by 2027, according to Irish research company, Research and Markets. Smart mining is a process that makes use of advanced technology to obtain improved safety, reduced operational costs, and better productivity for a mine site. Smart mining solutions are being increasingly incorporated into traditional mining approaches because of the benefits they obviously provide to mining companies. Driving the market are key factors that include increasing adoption of novel technologies, rising demand for autonomous vehicles, and need to ensure miner’s safety.
Below we look at reasons why mining companies in Africa, and worldwide, should invest in drone technology for their mines.
A Shift from Reactive to Proactive Maintenance
Today, aerial systems possess the fully-autonomous capabilities you need to routinely inspect your site with little manual effort.
As critical points of data are flagged – an unstable mine face, a missing safety berm, or damage to equipment – the software platform can use them to inform predictive modelling around safety in your mine. This allows you to see areas of inefficiency where certain issues repeatedly occur or forecast how detected ground changes may lead to an infrastructure hazard.
The ability to prevent an accident before it occurs is the greatest advantage an aerial data workflow stands to offer you.
Monitoring mine integrity
As a worksite carved and constituted from the very earth, the physical structure of a mine requires careful observation for structural integrity issues. From a thorough grid survey with a UAV, a three-dimensional Digital Terrain Model allows for precise measurements of the ground surface and elevation. With these measurements, one can ensure that key areas of the site are up to standard:
- Measuring break lines to see if they’re even and whether any bank failures are imminent
- Assessing the height between bench/dump areas and establish whether there is suitable workspace for the tasks at hand
- Analysing the slope and contours of walls to ensure structural integrity
Improving management of tailings dams and ponds
A compromise in a tailings dam can cause catastrophic damage to both the environment and human life. In a review of global tailing dam surveys over the course of 2019, the Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative found that 10 percent of these dams had a history of structural instability. Again, with an accurate model of the ground surface, mining engineers can identify potential issues with a dam – such as erosion, breaks or active leaks, and even significant loss in pond depth due to underground seepage.
With the right equipment, a UAV can even take on the task of tailing sampling, eliminating both the risk of sending staff out onto the pond and the high costs of such an operation.
Ensuring infrastructure complies with design guidelines
To keep trucks moving smoothly and safely, haul roads need to be kept within optimal design guidelines. An ideal road width for your trucks, road grade that complies with brake/stop limits, and a road layout conducive to safe driving – a digital terrain model can help monitor for compliance with all of these criteria.
Aside from the road itself, you can also use the same aerial data to identify any sections that are lacking necessary safety berms and drainage ditches.
Taking over work at dizzy heights
Mines are home to structures and massive pieces of machinery that require maintenance staff to work at great heights during inspection. UAVs are available in highly-manoeuvrable vehicle classes – such as a multi-rotor – that can perform meticulous multi-point inspections of these assets.
This is also an area where AI can help expedite the analysis process, quickly scanning imagery from each inspection for structural damage, missing components, or severe corrosion. With a high-endurance UAV, these inspections could take place in the same flight as an all-encompassing grid survey of your site.
Aerial data gives maintenance teams a crystal-clear picture of where to focus their efforts, while limiting the need to work at heights for only the most critical maintenance tasks.
Real-time aerial view of the complete blasting process
Many of these examples highlight how to use processed data post-inspection to improve safety, but blasting is a scenario where the UAV can play a valuable role in the midst of a live operation.
Throughout the blasting process, miners can use a real-time feed from the UAV to ensure everything meets safety standards. they can also examine blast-hole drillings to make sure they match the outlined plan and use an eye-in-the-sky to ensure the area is all-clear before detonation.
Once the blast is complete, the UAV can continue to monitor the area to determine when it’s safe to return to work and whether any local stakeholders need to be warned of drifting fumes.
The Power of a Bird’s-Eye-View
The reality is that UAVs are simply a means to an end within the context of data. Through platforms that can process the thousands of high-resolution images generated by UAV sensors, you will be able to access the resulting data quicker and easier. With 3D elevation models, AI-driven visual analysis, and predictive modelling, you can get a holistic view of your mine and pinpoint the safety issues that dictate immediate action – before they’ve even occurred.
While it may seem appealing to set up UAV operations in-house, cost and complexity can quickly spiral out of control. Purchasing the right aerial systems, maintaining a fleet, pilot training, mission planning, data processing, and analysis – all of these factors quickly add up. Outsourcing these efforts eliminates the need for massive upfront investments, allowing you to pay per UAV use or even better, simply purchase the data you desire.
With high-quality UAV data, you can mitigate today’s major risks to mining safety, drive your incident numbers down over time, and ultimately achieve your zero-incident goal.