Drones: The mineral industry's eyes in the sky

The world is overtly reliant on mining for raw materials like minerals, metals and coal. Even for the development of renewable energy sources, like solar panels, mining and processing of Silicon is required. It forms the backbone of our industrial and electronic age and consequently, efficient management and planning of mining operations is vital.

Mining management is quite complex and covers many facets. Planning is required for profitable and safe expansions, constructions of roads for transport and proper construction of tailing dams. Existing mines need to be continually monitored to ensure the safety of workers at all times. Resources must be allocated efficiently and stockpiles and inventory must be managed too. Waste management through tailing dams and landfills needs to be organized while ensuring structural integrity and a certain green-cover ratio. Constant surveillance of mines is also necessary.

Gathering actionable information to ensure compliance is a significant challenge for mining companies. A manual survey of the site is often impossible, as terrain poses a major hurdle.  Moreover, covering the entire mine, be it for security, surveying or routine inspections requires huge manpower and expenditure. Mining companies need to gather accurate data regularly, with limited resources.

Mining companies have begun using drones to simplify and streamline their data collection. Drones eliminate the need for human intervention, thus saving time and ensuring accuracy of data. Difficult terrain poses no problem for drones and they can easily traverse past inaccessible areas. Drones can be equipped with multiple sensors to provide a variety of outputs which can help with the various aspects of mining management.

Most common among these are RGB cameras or normal color cameras. The data captured is used to create detailed maps of the site and is hugely beneficial in planning mine expansions and roads. These maps can help identify rock types, outcrops and other features which could affect explosions. These scans are also beneficial in stockpile estimation and progress tracking. Further processing of the data can provide contour maps to determine the slope of the ground, which helps in estimating the flow of debris after explosions and liquid flow as well. Very often, structural problems and weak spots can also be identified through these cameras allowing for quick action.

LiDAR sensors are commonly used to generate accurate point clouds of the terrain. Through this, one can obtain a detailed 3D model of the entire mine right in their office. Through such scans, estimations of land volumes can be done more accurately, allowing for better resource allocation. Thermal cameras are also often used – these provide accurate heat maps of the mine, which are useful in identifying hotspots in coal mines and potential failure spots in tailing dams.

For such purposes, drones with high accuracy sensors, long flight times and easy-to-launch capabilities are necessary. The government of India has also made it mandatory for lessees of mines with planned excavations of over a million tons, or leased areas of over 50 hectares to conduct a drone survey every year. With these requirements, having a quick and reliable solution to conducting drone surveys is crucial.

As such, the UMT Sparrow PPK by UrbanMatrix Technologies is one of the best in the industry. It boasts an astonishing flight time of 70 minutes, one of the best among quadcopters, while providing high accuracy readings of up to 1.7 GSD (Ground Sampling Distance). It has been designed to be launched effortlessly, with UrbanMatrix’s proprietary ground control station– UMT Launch Pad. Such drone solutions enable larger scans in less time, without requiring much training for scaling operations.

Another important use of drones in mine management is for security and surveillance. For this purpose, automation and procurement of real-time data are of the essence. However, drones are usually limited by radio communication and video footage can only be sent to the pilot. UrbanMatrix on the other hand has been able to incorporate 4G connectivity into their drone, the UMT Hawk4G, which enables real-time viewing of drone footage from anywhere in the world, through a secure web-based cloud platform. The footage can also be processed through advanced Artificial Intelligence models, which can automatically detect and track intruders. This accessibility enables those in charge to make well-informed decisions sans any delay.

Drone soften find their use in open air mines for scans and mapping, and in abandoned mines for inspections. When it comes to fully underground mines, navigation through the narrow confines of the mine and communication through solid rock poses a major problem to the use of drones. For these inspections, drones are encased in a cage, to avoid structural damage. Obstacle avoidance algorithms and automated flight systems could soon eliminate these hurdles as well.

Drones provide an economic and more efficient alternative to the management of one of the biggest industries that runs the world. With the ability to automate various aspects of planning, security, stockpile management and resource allocation, it isn’t long before drones will be widely accepted as the best way forward for mine management.

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