Using Drones for Mining: the Beginner’s Guide

So you want to use a drone on your site?

Advances in technology have made the drone an affordable tool for worksites. While they may seem like fancy pieces of equipment, drones have become no more unusual than a GPS rover, but just as vital in recent years.

Unlike traditional surveying equipment, however, you don’t need tons of special training and education to use it.

mining site panorama

Used correctly, drones enable faster, more economical and higher-resolution surveying, without sacrificing on accuracy. A successful drone program can provide your business with accurate, up-to-date information on your site’s progress and productivity, and information you can use to ensure high-quality work and minimize operational risks and costs.

Collecting and processing your data is only half the story. Web-based platforms can translate your raw data into something readable and actionable. Take our own Propeller Platform: it takes your data and transforms it into a 3D survey of your site. Fully navigable. Fully measurable. It’s run in your browser, so you can forget about the clunky and complex desktop software of the past.

Don’t have time to read the full guide right now? Save your full guide to drones in mining for later, plus gain access to additional content.

Key components of a successful drone program

You’ll need the right hardware, the right software, and the right licenses (if applicable). We’ll go through these one by one further down.

It’s not unusual for organizations to invest a lot of money into research and experimental drone programs. The tendency is to put a ton of emphasis on hardware. This often overcomplicates things, and leads to building custom drones or signing up for long-term drone leases.

But after the test phase has finished, some companies’ lack of scalability becomes apparent. They can’t effectively train their people to reproduce the test-phase success on other sites.

For a successful drone program, remember to keep it simple, scalable, and economically efficient. Basically, choose your program with overall ROI at top of mind.

If you want to learn more about starting a drone program on your site, check this blog post.

Use your survey data to spend less and make more

Drones cut down surveying times to hours instead of days or months, and they’re cheaper than traditional surveying equipment. There’s a whole lot more that drones can do for mines, however. Let’s look at a few workflows to see how you can use your data to best effect.

Stockpile management and reporting

Stockpile management is the most widely used worksite application for drones. This is for good reason: drones have completely transformed this common workflow. The old days of “walking a stockpile” are surely numbered.

With a drone, you can capture an entire sales yard in less than 30 minutes. Within a processing platform like Propeller, getting accurate volume calculations and comparisons takes just a few seconds, with all your measurements easily exported to CSV files or PDFs.

Because surveying stockpiles via drone is easier and quicker than traditional methods, gathering data more frequently is no longer cost- or time-prohibitive. You can fly your site as often as you want new data. You don’t have to wait for a biannual aerial flyover or an outsourced surveyor walk your site. With more up-to-date information, you can improve run-of-mine management and ensure more consistent grades through the mill.

Drones also remove the risks that come with having personnel physically moving around a worksite.

Even if you stopped here and just used drones for stockpile management, you could make a good business case for introducing drones to your site. But there’s much more you can do with this data.

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Streamline planning and building

Drones can also help with the planning and building side of things. With accurate and up-to-date data, your processing engine can create a visualization of your site. This allows for better pit and dump design and management.

With regular flights, you build up a visual record of changes over time, which permits you to check weekly or monthly pit volumes and compare the current surface against previous datasets.

Additionally, by overlaying design files on a 3D survey within a platform like Propeller, you can check the conformance of the actual site and determine the exact volume of material that needs to be extracted or moved to meet the design.

You can also model sediment flow with elevation maps, which let you better plan tailings basin operations.

tailings dam measurement using drone data

Save time on drilling and blasting

Any area you’re thinking of blasting can be easily and inexpensively surveyed by drone. The data you capture preblast includes rock-type variation in a bench, face angles, rock condition, and, of course, volumes.

When you turn that data into a 3D survey, you can use a platform’s measurement tools to calculate drill depths accurately and analyze your blast area. This means getting better estimates on what a particular blast with yield before you drill a single hole.

Pre blast volume measurement in a quarry

You can survey again after the blast, too. This lets you measure postblast volume and provides a picture for visual assessments of blast results, like muckpile shape, back damage, and distribution and fragmentation.

Monitor roads more efficiently

On an active mine, your roads take a beating and road quality can change quickly, which affects the wear and tear on your trucks. Because you can get surveys more often with drones, assessing haul road conditions on a frequent and regular basis can become the norm. Not to mention better traffic planning.

haul road check in a mine

 

And that’s just the visual inspection side of things. In processing platforms like Propeller, you can measure road lengths, slopes, grades, and check roads against design and safety requirements with just a few clicks.

Now, you know that being able to do all this quickly and accurately increases your mobile plant efficiency and reduce cycle times, but too often with traditional methods it just isn’t possible. Drones help close that data gap between what you know you need to do and what you can do.

Perform inspections safely and easily

Perhaps most obviously, drones are great for getting eyes on hard-to-reach places. They can go where humans cannot. This makes them terrific for both safety and asset inspections. The high-resolution images they take capture details and aspects that may not be visible from wherever you are on the ground, and these can be used by multiple departments in a variety of inspection workflows.

Since you’re taking surveys over time, you can build a timeline of the life of your mine. This helps with monitoring site boundaries, especially when it comes to environmental protection. You can track and mark off spaces that should not be disturbed. And because you can grant access to the visualization to others on site, it’s easy to show everyone where the no-go zones are.

On the most basic level, drone surveys are made up of individual images. These snapshots can also help with various workflows. For example, geologists can view them individually and do accurate geotech mapping and rock face inspections.

Further, because everyone is working from the same images, the same data, drone surveys provide a single source of truth across departments and sites. With various permission and sharing capabilities in your platform, you, your team, and different departments can access all the data they need, without second-guessing its accuracy. You can be confident that everyone is on the same page.

Check safety compliance easily and more often

Safety is the number-one priority for any mine. As you might have guessed, drones can help improve that too.

First, there’s the immediate benefit of reducing job hazards for your people. When you use a drone to perform remote surveys and inspections of potentially hazardous locations like the bottom of the pit, block caves, and heavy traffic areas, you don’t have to send in personnel to see what’s going on. Everyone’s out of harm’s way.

Second, you can ensure better safety planning and risk detection. This is possible because drone-captured data helps you better spot and monitor worksite hazards. You can make sure your site is safety compliant by checking windrow heights, berms, and tailings dams, and measure overall pit slope or individual slope angles.

slope height check in a mine

Drones are revolutionizing the industry

Mining is a multifaceted industry and with many moving parts, accountability, progress tracking, and accurate data is key to success. But, as we’ve seen here, it’s too often that you don’t have the tools you need to accomplish your job on time and on budget, not to mention make day-to-day management easier. Drones can drastically improve these issues by solving problems quicker, with less trouble, and through less costly means.

Using a drone on your site does not require someone with extensive special training, often you can learn how to fly it yourself and obtain the required certification without hassle.

A processing platform like Propeller is cloud- and browser-based, which means that you can access you survey data on your device from wherever you are.

This also means that your team has the same access, making collaboration easier than ever. And because drone surveying is so much more efficient than traditional methods, you can have more up-to-date data than ever before, which enables everyone to make better, data-driven decisions confidently.

Now all of this is great to think about theoretically, but when it comes down to it, what are companies actually seeing when they start using drones and processing software?

Here are a few examples of real people solving real problems on their sites:

“I can go out and fly a site in two to three hours and then just upload everything to Propeller and come in the next day, and it’s done. If I have a question or something, I can just email someone and usually within a few hours—or within 24 hours—I have a solution back. It simplified everything that we do.  Before, we weren’t doing a lot of monitoring on every site, so now we try to fly every site at least once a month.”

Jim Croan, JRC Construction

“Up-to-date technology in the quarrying sector has helped Hanson with real-life stockpile reconciliations. I’d definitely recommend Propeller.” —Scott Lean, Hanson

If you’re interested in reading more about how Propeller can help you measure and manage your site, download our free ebook: Drone Data Analytics for Mining

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