Accelerating Mining Operations with Drones & Autonomous Vehicle Technology

By Ben Gross | January 25th, 2023

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Providing essential raw materials for a wide range of manufacturing and industrial processes, mining is high up on the “dull, dirty and dangerous” job list, making it a prime target for automation. Thanks to the boom in unmanned vehicle and autonomy technologies, a variety of solutions have been developed to boost both the safety and efficiency of mining operations.

UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are now deployed at both overground and underground mining sites, covering great distances and capturing data in a fraction of the time taken by other methods. On the ground, haulage trucks have been fitted with autonomy systems that allow them to operate reliably around the clock without the need for drivers.

The safety benefits of drone use in mining

Mines are inherently dangerous environments, particularly when it comes to underground operations. Personnel working onsite may be at risk from hazardous chemicals, explosions caused by dust or gas, and unstable surroundings that could leave them trapped, injured or worse. In 2020, the ICMM (International Council on Metals and Mining) reported approximately 7000 injuries for that year.

The use of drones allows remote BVLOS operation, removing human operators from these risky conditions. Some systems are now able to map and navigate cramped underground passages and chambers more efficiently than any team of miners, even in the absence of GPS. The ease of deployment and lower cost of drones also allows inspections to be performed more often, meaning that problems with equipment or working environments will be picked up quicker and before they escalate to bigger issues.

Converting haulage trucks into unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) reduces the rate of accidents and other issues caused by fatigue and human error. As the trucks never get tired, they can also be scheduled to run full-time, increasing the output and thus the profitability of the mine.

How drones improve stockpile management and data collection

When it comes to data collection, aerial drones are an indispensable asset. They can be used to gather valuable insights quickly and efficiently, and the operator does not even need to be onsite. They can also collect many times more data points than traditional terrestrial survey methods, making the results highly accurate and reliable.

Drone-gathered data can be processed to create a number of useful outputs, including point clouds, orthophotos, DSMs (digital surface models) and DEMs (digital elevation models). These products can be used for a wide variety of critical applications, including mineral prospecting, site and road planning, potential hazard identification, and environmental monitoring.

One particular application of note is volumetric measurement, which is a way of calculating the amount of material present in a stockpile. Carrying out these calculations manually is both difficult and limited in accuracy due to the sheer size of the stockpiles. A small inaccuracy in a surface measurement can compound to a massive error when that measurement is used to calculate a volume, leading to wastage and inefficiency.

Drones can be used for repeatable and precise stockpile surveys, capturing large numbers of data points at a distance. As a result, mine operators benefit from significantly enhanced accuracy, giving them a true picture of stock levels and enabling them to plan effectively.


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Drone technology and payloads for mining operations

While multirotor drones can be used for small-scale overground inspections and surveys, fixed-wing or hybrid VTOL drones are typically employed on larger sites, as they can cover hundreds of acres in a single flight. They can be equipped with a variety of payloads, including HD cameras, laser scanners, thermal imagers and magnetometers. Due to the uneven terrain found around mines, hybrid VTOL platforms can often be a better choice, as landing under these conditions can cause damage to pure fixed-wing drones.

In order to venture underground, the maneuverability of multirotor drones makes them the only choice. Some platforms are designed with a rollcage that enables them to survive repeated contact with hard rocky surfaces.

Underground mining drones cannot rely on GPS or other GNSS for navigation, as the signals cannot penetrate through to the depths. Drones operating in these GNSS-denied environments may employ techniques such as SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping), which uses data from a combination of visual and LiDAR sensors to create a 3D map of the environment and keep track of the position within it.

Robust communications for mining drones and vehicles

Mining drones and vehicles may require communications that extend beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), either due to the topology of the area itself, or because operators may wish to locate the command center offsite.

Mining is already highly safety-critical, and becomes even more so with the addition of drones and vehicles that may be either autonomous or controlled from a remote location. In order to provide absolute confidence in the safety of these operations, a robust communications solution is required. Traditional RF datalinks are not suitable for BVLOS operations, and SATCOM (satellite communications) equipment is too large and heavy for many aerial drone platforms. While SATCOM terminals can be easily installed in large haulage trucks, the use of such solutions comes with expensive subscription costs.

Elsight’s Halo is a compact and lightweight solution that utilizes up to four separate cellular connections, aggregating them into one secure datalink. Thanks to Halo’s state-of-the-art AI-powered cellular bonding technology, unmanned vehicles can be operated safely from almost anywhere in the world, benefiting from close to 100% uptime.

Halo has been selected by Australian autonomous mining company Auto-mate for incorporation into their unmanned haulage trucks. The trucks can intelligently determine the safest and most efficient way to traverse their pre-programmed route within a defined corridor, using a suite of sensors that includes cameras, LiDAR, inertial navigation systems, and GNSS.

Halo provides a robust connection between the trucks and the remote command center, giving operators absolute connection confidence and allowing them to remain in contact with the vehicles at all times.

FAQs

Why are drones used in the mining industry?

Drones are used to perform tasks in and around mines that would entail higher risk if undertaken by humans, or that would take more time and effort to complete via other methods. These tasks include mapping and surveying, stockpile measurement, and inspection.

What are the best drones to use in the mining industry?

Fixed-wing drones are ideal for covering large mining sites on the surface, whereas the enhanced maneuverability of multirotors is essential for underground operations. Specific sensors and payloads will depend on the application, but may include photogrammetry cameras, LiDAR scanners, and gas sensors.

How do mine drone outputs help with reporting and auditing?

Drones can be deployed easily and rapidly without having to send a surveying team to remote or dangerous locations, and can provide repeatable and highly accurate results. This allows auditing to be carried out more frequently and with greater confidence. Having precise and up-to-date data on mining operations also makes it easier to comply with regulations and keep stakeholders informed.

To find out how Halo can enable autonomy and secure remote connection for your mining and other industrial drones and vehicles, please get in touch!

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