Until recently, a mental image was like something out of a science fiction novel, but with the growing popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that quietly fly over remote landscapes, far-removed from human civilization, those images have now become a reality.
In fact, by using small, high-resolution cameras attached to the undersides of UAVs, it’s now possible to take snapshot after snapshot, slowly mapping the curves and contours of the terrain, regardless of where it is, and on command, they turn around and head back to base.
The information gathered by the UAVs is reviewed, analyzed and often followed shortly thereafter by large rigs filled with mining equipment designed to take the search one step closer to exploration and development.
Thanks to the presence of drone technology, more and more mining companies are also saving time and money by using UAVs for remote site inspections.
One company that has witnessed this trend is The Sky Guys, Oakville, ON., and as its CEO Adam Sax explains, “We’ve been working with mining companies across the globe and currently we have two strategic partners helping us provide our services: Skycatch out of the U.S. provides us with proprietary data processing, while our Canadian partner Aerobotika offers in-house training, and acts as a partner on international mining projects.”
According to Sax, his company has invested into both commercial and military UAVs, hand-picking only the most experienced UAV pilots and teams. Although they specialize in high-rise real estate, their mining-related services are expanding. He says they make a point of working closely with their clients during the mapping process, training in-house crews and consulting on equipment purchases and lobbying efforts.
“Drones are beginning to take flight in the mining industry,” writes Mining Global’s Robert Spence. “The newly adopted technology, which has been utilized for a wide array of mining activities, is taking another step forward. Unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as UAV, are turning the mining sector into an emerging frontier for new technology. In recent years, these miniature helicopters have helped the industry find cheaper and safer ways to map deposit sites and explore for minerals via remote control.”
Physical site inspections are gruelling and expensive. You need pilots, you need people capable of recognizing what you’re looking for, and you need to navigate a sea of rules and regulations. With no guarantee that a company will find anything worth mining, it almost isn’t worth the effort.
UAVs, on the other hand, enjoy a much less stringent regulatory environment which, in addition to the significant cost savings, make them a far superior alternative to helicopters where surveying and planning is concerned. And with the advent of advanced analysis platforms such as Switzerland’s Pix4D, even the smallest photos can be translated into data.
“With our specialized drones, a two-man team can map a region anywhere in the world,” says Sax. “Our state-of-the-art camera equipment allows us to provide clients with ultra-high resolution 2D and 3D maps that they can work with. In addition, we’re able to attach different types of payloads such as infrared and thermal cameras – and all of this at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter flight.”
“[UAVs] could be instrumental in mining safety,” notes Promine, citing the firm. “Their wide aerial view will allow them to monitor traffic and note staff infractions, much like a traffic camera on a city street. Quick interventions will improve safety and road conditions, and drones could also assist in rescue operations by delivering necessary supplies quickly and efficiently. Moreover, they could help keep track of a widely dispersed site that might otherwise require enormous time or resources to monitor.”
Safety, surveying and planning are only the tip of the iceberg. Only a few short decades from now, we’re likely to see the first automated mines on Earth. Only a few short decades from then, we’ll see them move off Earth.
“Technological advances in the development of drones and robots will help create mines of the future in remote locations such as Mongolia that can be directed from NASA-inspired control rooms in first-world cities in the U.S. and Australia,” writes Bloomberg’s David Stringer. “While drones swarm overhead, the mines of 2030 may also see scuttling robots which map underground chambers to within a millimetre of detail with lasers or use automated drills to separate waste from valuable ore as they burrow into rock. At waste dumps, so-called molecular sponges created from crab shells will be used to extract every last metal particle.”
There are challenges to overcome here, of course. The regulatory environment surrounding drone technology is still largely uncertain, and questions of safety at sites where drones and humans work side by side will undoubtedly surface. As with other regulatory challenges, however, these will be overcome with time – and once they are, the mining industry’s going to be catapulted into a new era.
“Without a doubt, technology is going to continue to play a larger role over the next 20 years. Drones will become dominant in both the planning and extraction process, while more advanced cameras will allow us to see deeper into the earth’s surface, perhaps even from thousands of miles away,” says Sax. “Looking towards the future, our mission is to become the leading provider in drone services globally. We plan to continue investing in newer and more advanced technology, which will ultimately save time, money, lives and the environment – while at the same time helping move the mining industry forward.”
Thanks to drone tech, it almost feels as though our society has entered into the realm of science fiction. But we haven’t. Drones and their valuable applications in mining are all too real. Today, we’re starting with mapping and surveying, but as we move forward into the future, automation is as inevitable as the tides.
Nicholas Greene is a Calgary-based writer.