February 2018

Getting more from your drone: superpowers for onsite and offsite decision-makers

  • By Francis Vierboom, CEO, Propeller Aero

Drone technology is providing mining companies with an array of benefits that can improve health and safety, collaboration and productivity

While the mining industry is often accused of being slow to adopt a new technology, that can’t be said about drones. Mines are using drones more frequently and across a wider range of applications than many other industries. From managing inventory and monitoring road construction, to tracking strip campaigns and tailings dams, drone-based survey data is quickly becoming a standard part of mining operations. Unlike many digital technology initiatives in mining that are driven from the top down, drones are being adopted by individual sites. This ‘grassroots’ adoption is delivering practical and immediate results on site. But it can also mean that enterprises are missing out on leveraging drone data and learnings across their entire business. ‘Bottom up’ adoption needs to be augmented with a ‘top down’ approach that encourages widespread application and ensures that everyone has access to the data. To better understand the opportunity that drone data presents, let’s look first at the factors that have led to such a rapid adoption of this technology in open cut mining.

The benefits are clear

Resources professionals have long recognised that drones could be a useful surveying tool, exponentially increasing the volume of information that can be obtained compared with traditional ground surveying techniques. Using aerial photogrammetry, photos taken by a drone are processed into topographic and contour maps, as well as a range of 3D data models. Photogrammetry has been used with conventional aircraft for years, but drones offer far more detail and precision, with subcentimetre accuracy now possible.

The regulatory barrier to adoption is low

In Australia since September 2016, Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regulations have allowed drones up to 2 kg to be operated for commercial purposes without a licence. Australia’s regulatory approach makes it a global leader in the trend towards simpler, risk-based regulation; in contrast, the USA and much of Europe still requires anyone operating a drone commercially to undergo formal remote pilot certification.

Mass-market consumer flight platforms have become the best choice

The first wave of drone adoption in mining focused on high-end fixed-wing platforms that provided long range for larger sites. However, this came at the cost of operational reliability – wind, landing areas and even eagles provided frequent costly barriers to usage, and spare parts or support were difficult to access.

Consumer technology has leapt forward in recent years, and in 2017, with a standard flight time of 28 minutes, the sub-2 kg DJI Phantom 4 multicopter drone can be used (with a single spare battery) to capture almost 1 km2 in less than an hour. Larger areas can be surveyed with more batteries at a similar tempo to fixed-wing flights, without the cost and risk of fixed-wing platforms. Spare parts aren’t an issue when you can buy entire spare platforms from well-known consumer electronics stores.

Of course, where needed, heavier or fixed-wing drones can still be used effectively with training and certification comparable to trucks and other mobile plants commonly found on a mine site.

With commercial drones now equipped with high resolution cameras, optical collision avoidance and user-friendly controls – and available for less than $2000 – it’s no wonder that many mine sites are flying over their active pits and run-of-mine (ROM) areas daily. Not only are operators getting data more often, they don’t have the hassle of halting operations as you do when ground surveying. On the BHP blog ‘Prospects’, Frans Knox recently estimated that using drones is saving $5 million a year in BHP’s Queensland operations alone.

Professional accuracy is achievable from readily available technology

When combined with ground control points, drone-based photogrammetry models can provide highly detailed results across wide areas that are ideal for many survey and site workflows.

If your operation requires accurate maps that line up over time within less than 10 cm, all you’ll need is a GPS rover to establish ground control markers – a standard part of every mine surveyor’s toolkit. If your surveyor is already busy enough, or ground control markers are taking too long to put down, you can also empower teams to get their own surveys done with ‘smart’ solar-powered ground control points (GCPs) that get real-time kinetic (RTK) precision with simple one-button operation. If you need precision around areas where being on the ground isn’t feasible, there’s also RTK-equipped drones that can capture accurate topography.

Drones provide visual data that everyone can use

Drones are more accurate than aerial surveys, safer than conventional ground survey options and cheaper than both. However, it’s becoming clear that these factors aren’t what’s most important about the new wave of drone information on mining sites. The real change is coming from the visual power of drone information – a new kind of data that’s available on demand and incredibly detailed. This data opens up a wide range of conversations across worksite teams, both onsite and offsite, and is helping them to collaborate visually to get more done themselves.

Measure and manage your site yourself, with straightforward return-on-investment multiples

Run-of-mine and inventory management

Drones can quickly capture ROM areas. A mine in Western Australia is using data from daily flights to keep a very close eye on their ore grades, removing the need to have a geologist physically sit with the wheel loader operator to ensure a consistent grade goes through the mill.

Continuous monitoring against design

Drones make it easy to measure and ensure that pit walls are being stripped back according to design – without putting laser scanning equipment or personnel in the pit or interfering with production. With the right cloud-based data platform, this monitoring can be automated and reported on.

Continuous site safety monitoring and optimisation

More frequent data means that haul road grades, cross slopes and widths can be checked more often against specifications. In a similar way, slope and face inspections can be completed more frequently and safely – especially in inaccessible areas.

Better environmental compliance

With regular drone surveys, managing a site’s inventory and usage of spoil and topsoil becomes practical instead of painful. Coverage calculations for topsoil on cleared areas can be done in seconds – eliminating the need to send survey teams out to site to complete hours of work, which doesn’t help to get production running. Moreover, the record of multiple maps across time are comprehensive and independent so that they can stand up to scrutiny at critical times, quickly resolving disputes or misunderstandings.

Better tailings and waste management

Keeping track of these sensitive, hazardous and time-consuming areas becomes much easier to do effectively with regular data and simple surveying tools that track changes and conformance to design.

Blasting and pit management

Blasting inevitably involves managing misfires, which requires surveyors to enter highly dangerous zones to mark out critical areas. Drone data is being used to improve blast planning, enabling personnel to safely calculate drill hole depths and inspect fragmentation areas remotely. A drone can quickly survey pre- and post-blast for accurate volume comparisons.

Introducing people to the site

One of the simplest and yet important uses of drone data is as an orientation tool for directing staff or contractors. Inductions are more effective when using a detailed up-to-date site map, and supervisors often tell us just how much easier it is to view a work area on the screen than have the whole team drive to the spot.

As the above examples illustrate, drones are being used in a wide range of workflows, giving local teams better visibility and control of their sites. They are in effect digitising their sites at a rate not possible with traditional techniques. The downside is that they are creating islands of data that are not being leveraged beyond the teams managing those workflows.

Bottom-up adoption is an enterprise-wide opportunity

While most of the mine sites we work with are now coordinating their drone programs site-wide, very few are working with other sites. It’s becoming clear that head offices need to pay more attention to the opportunity that drones can provide to drive improvements across their entire business.

Leverage expertise across sites

With access across the entire enterprise to the same detailed up-to-date visual and survey data from all sites, the opportunities for improved efficiency and collaboration are significant. Specialists can contribute from offsite; the best experts – wherever they are – can be called in to quickly understand and assess a question or problem with visual information. Mine construction and rehabilitation projects can be designed, monitored and managed remotely.

Build team trust and coordination

Separated teams with different priorities don’t always see eye-to-eye on important questions. Improving transparency between offsite and onsite teams means that less time is spent disagreeing and more time is spent working towards a solution. With all staff working from a single source of truth, coordination between site and head office is improved, and the cost of reporting and measuring progress isn’t a barrier to a team trusting each other and working together. Rolling out a standardised drone program across an enterprise empowers all teams to make better decisions.

Engage stakeholders and de-risk compliance and litigation

With a genuine commitment to sustainable environmental outcomes, as well as ever-increasing community and regulatory oversight and engagement, tracking the environment on and around a mine site is expensive, difficult and critical. A comprehensive drone data program implemented at the enterprise level is an enormous opportunity to address key risks. Regular oversight means teams can spot and manage changes before they become problems, resulting in a clear line of sight back to what existed at the start and how ecosystems and environments can be restored.

If disputes arise, the data collected by drones means there’s a way to resolve questions quickly and clearly, avoiding months or years of legal costs and investigations.

A critical big data asset and a future competitive edge

Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are widely seen as the critical technologies that will drive the future of productivity gains and economic growth across many industries – and mining is no exception. The challenge for machine learning is almost never the machine – it’s having the right data set to analyse for insights. Mining groups that start collecting and measuring data comprehensively in an organised way will have a critical head start in being able to take advantage of the next wave of technology improvements.

A key strategic step that’s becoming easier to take every day

At a site level today, drones already have compelling value that’s driving adoption. With even more strategic value when adopted across the organisation, it’s easy to see how drones are becoming a critical part of the future for mining organisations around the world. As an Australian-based technology company that is growing and exporting our own software platform around the world, Propeller Aero is excited to see the innovations and insights that will happen in the resources sector. It’s a matter of when, rather than if your site will start relying on regular visual updates provided by drones.

For more information visit propelleraero.com.

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