Many progressive mining operations are now seriously considering—and in some cases already implementing—the use of UAVs, or drones. In the following guest blog post, Sean Jefferys, owner and geospatial consultant at Sean Jefferys Ltd., reports on the effectiveness of UAVs in the mining industry.
Drones are being deployed at mine and quarry sites worldwide, providing timely, accurate geospatial data to aid mine planning agility, volume calculation, slope monitoring and blast analysis. But before a company can take to the skies and reap the benefits of going aerial, effective drone adoption requires careful planning, and efficiently communicating the technology’s benefits to key stakeholders and decision-makers.
As a geospatial consultant, who helps implement digitisation and business improvement projects, I’m aware of the challenges mining companies are facing.
In 2009, I joined Barrick Gold at their flagship Pueblo Viejo project in the Dominican Republic. It had already witnessed the potential of drones by the time I arrived, and we soon had a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
The evolution of photogrammetry began by loaning a single license for ADAM Technology’s 3DM Analyst. We acquired aerial photos by bolting a NIKON D700 DSLR camera onto the skid of a helicopter and using a handheld GPS to navigate the flight lines while collecting overlapping photos. This was partially successful yet expensive, slow and inaccurate.
We were then given a VTOL drone and started producing an aerial mapping of our own. The VTOL system was clunky and there were many technical failures, but the high-risk flying was onto something.
Drone implementation was slow and punctuated with failures until a young Barrick Gold specialist named Jack Fung, who is now at Johnson Electric, introduced us to senseFly’s first Swinglet CAM UAV, which turned out to be a game-changer.
Safety was the primary benefit, as senseFly’s drone provided peace of mind. The Swinglet was basically a flying piece of foam with a few light components that allowed basic repairs to be done with a tube adhesive. It also attracted very little attention while flying, caused minimal disruption to ground activities, was also extremely reliable and the eMotion planning software it came with was simple and intuitive to use. Three Swinglets would often fly at the same time for large areas like the tailings dam.
Drones were quickly brought in as an operation tool, and, in 2014, I was awarded the Barrick Global Excellence Award for Innovation and Continuous Improvement, regarding the site’s UAVs.
Shortly after that, I became a capital projects coordinator at Barrick Gold, where I continued to search for applications in which drone data could provide insights and increase cost-effectiveness.
My quest didn’t last long. In addition to the better savings and mapping accuracy, the drones provided instantaneous, comprehensive and reliable records for projects managers; for example, a site survey could be completed in a few hours, whereas traditional methods would take days.
Furthermore, a single flight would cover the entire project site, removing the need for providing time-consuming—and often unclear—instructions to a survey team on what to survey/laser scan. Additionally, our procurement team relied on regular flyovers to assist with their inventory control and planning, as they had hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock spread across numerous laydown areas that were scattered around the mine site.
It’s important to note that the drones did not replace people; they added instantaneous value to existing processes that would not have been possible economically using traditional means.
Making the right investment
If a company is serious about implementing an enterprise drone programme, it’s important to understand the challenges ahead. The business must also factor in what will help drive its leadership to seriously consider implementing this.
The biggest impetus for investing in UAVs is reducing operating costs. They are cheaper than traditional survey instruments and manned aircraft aerial mapping. Drones are also a safer, efficient substitute for terrestrial data collection and photogrammetry. It should be noted, however, that implementing a successful programme requires a lot of time and proper training, taking six months to a year to acquire the equipment and software, train the staff, apply for the appropriate permits and stabilize the operation and data collection.
My experience has mostly been with the mines in remote locations, rendering hiring UAV operators cost-prohibitive. I, therefore, recommend developing skills in-house to give mining companies more control over how the technology is deployed.
But this is changing as the cost of drones decreases, and their reliability and efficiencies improve, giving local service providers greater access to UAVs. The industry is also beginning to trust the technology as it becomes more reliable, with leading UAV mapping systems now incorporating real-time kinematics (RTK) GRPS. RTK and post-processing kinematics (PPK) are very interesting because they eliminate the need to have laborious and costly ground control points (GCPs).
Going for gold
Drone adoption usually takes shape in one of two ways: at a corporate level—meaning from the top-down—and from an operational level, where operators on the ground understand the benefits and communicate these upwards until there is widespread adoption.
In the Dominican Republic, Barrick’s Pueblo Viejo Dominicana Corporation (PVDC) project adopted the use of drones at an operational level. The site had limited space and complex ore classification that required regular topographic updates to improve the estimation of its stockpiles.
This work was previously done with a mixture of traditional surveying instruments, including laser scanners and GPS. Incorporating drones helped in several ways: as well as being a faster means of data capture and cheaper to purchase than laser scanners, the degree of human error related to data collection was also reduced.
How was this possible? Because of the geometry of a stockpile, aerial data collection, as opposed to terrestrial methods, is more efficient. Restricted access around the back of big stockpiles—and the need to view one from several vantage points on the ground—can result in updates being collected over a longer period—or three to four times longer than a drone. As a result, they are generally limited to picking up only areas that have changed.
This means that the new and old data must be merged, which requires editing point clouds using powerful software and a skilled operator. The drone data is derived from a single mission of the whole stockpile, effectively showing a snapshot in time, with no editing required to generate the stockpile surface. In fact, an added by-product of the drone flyover is detecting alterations. Prior knowledge of where the stockpile has changed is not required, as this is provided by the previous dataset, saving time and removing any gaps in the information.
The Barrick Gold PVDC project also required a dynamic mine planning schedule and complicated stockpiling strategy, resulting in the need for better data. In the past, this would have been made possible by investing in more resources or expensive manned aircraft mapping. By using UAVs, the cost of delivering aerial mapping was reduced with the need for additional survey resources.
Word quickly spread of its success, causing the technology to gain traction across all departments and disciplines on-site. This resulted in a corporate-led spread of information, where the results of drone implementation were regularly presented to other groups within the company at quarterly global knowledge-sharing webinars and technical conferences.
Becoming a standard operating procedure (SOP)
Ian Allen, programme director, innovation at Barrick Gold, said, “[Using] UAVs in mining [is] no longer considered innovative, it’s now SOP,” because it perfectly underlines just how important the role of drones has become in the industry.
In the Dominican Republic, for example, the use of drones was initiated by a need for better data. It was a relatively simple and elegant solution to a major obstacle.
The same can be said for my role in helping to implement a sustainable UAV programmed for Lucara Diamond in Botswana. The company grabbed international attention when it discovered the Lesedi La Rona, one of the largest diamonds ever found, on 16 November 2015. The find was attributed to its leadership’s decision to invest in technology and look for innovative ways to mine.
Like Barrick Gold, the birth of Lucara’s drone programme began at the operational level, in order to address the need for improving mining volume management and ore reconciliation. Corporate support was never called into question, as incorporating the adoption of UAV technology was driven by the need for better data.
A corporate buy-in came about when this information was made available through a cloud-based platform that enabled viewing and basic analytics. The true power of the drone data was unleashed in a board meeting, where the company’s leaders were able to zoom into the pit model and look at stockpile changes over time, which helped guide future decisions.
Lucara then acquired a senseFly eBee Plus to increase the monthly coverage of everything from the waste dumps and tailings storage facilities to the pit and stockpiles. A former executive was so impressed, having seen the value for his organization, that he stopped us mid-presentation and said, “Well, what are we waiting for?”
Spreading the word
If going from individual to use wide-scale adoption is a company’s goal, then a disciplined approach to UAV implementation is required – and that means the effective communication of its value upstream.
Lucara Diamond Corporation and Barrick Gold are excellent examples of drone implementations that moved beyond the operational level. Instead of simply improving the day-to-day production on the ground, the benefit of using drones was clearly expressed to the corporate decision-makers and then integrated across the board. Both instances illustrate how important the transfer of knowledge is to introduce an enterprise-level drone programmed.
Simply leaving the adoption to the data collectors (surveyors and mining engineers) results in stunted implementation across an organisation. Corporate buy-in is critical to helping dedicated mining personnel employ UAV technology on a wider scale, rather than relying on the troops on the ground to spearhead its use.
Last year, Imerys’s minerals and clay mining operation needed to improve data gathering across an area that was too large for its survey team in Cornwall, UK, to cover effectively. This led to the business identifying UAVs as a technology that could provide more accurate data in a cost-effective manner.
With Imerys, this was one of the rare—but welcomed—times where adoption was introduced at the corporate level and propelled by a need for better data and cost savings.
By implementing a dedicated UAV programme—which greatly reduced its light detection and ranging (LiDAR) mapping needs—the company reaped the rewards. It has now replaced the business’ traditional monthly data collection method with a more efficient and cost-effective approach. The drone data, for example, is helping to improve its team’s material reconciliation, mine planning and grade control.
In an ideal world, a corporate-level decision-maker would identify and allocate specific resources or personnel. These individuals must be from the trenches and have an in-depth knowledge of the drone industry and operations. That way, they can evaluate and adjust integration, while paying attention to the UAV market’s rapid development.
They must also identify the risks—including the weather, resources, topography and aviation restrictions—and requirements, such as permits, insurance, frequency, data deliverables, growth and development applications at each site.
It’s also important to find the appropriate technology and vendors with whom each site will develop a partnership while providing the corporate support and knowledge transfer across the organisation.
Naturally, decision-makers need to be dedicated to promoting drone use throughout their company. This would also include providing all the essential aspects of training for each site, as well as managing growth across all areas. The only criteria are that it must add value to each business unit.
Sadly, we don’t live in an ideal world. The onus often falls disproportionately on surveyors and mining engineers to spearhead innovation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, corporations that ‘force-feed’ an operation can have a negative effect, meaning that unless the business unit sees the cost-benefit, the adoption process will eventually stall.
Sky’s the limit
So, what makes enterprise-level UAV adoption a success? The answer depends on an organisation’s needs. Thankfully, there are enough real-world examples, including the ones that I have provided, that demonstrate how using drones can benefit large mining projects.
And while there is no single formula to ensure successful enterprise-level UAV adoption, it’s important to remember that there are ways to increase the odds of success. Effectively transferring knowledge and benefits between innovators on the ground and those upstream—in terms of how a potential UAV implementation will or is providing value for day-to-day operations—is crucial for wide-scale adoption. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the individuals upstream took a proactive approach as well.
This article originally appeared in Volume 1 of World Mining Frontiers.