Adoption of drones in Australia’s mining industry continues to gather pace.
Once linked predominantly with the activities of major companies, the value of integrating drones into operations is now understood from the top echelon of mining to its grassroots level, with many junior explorers using them at early stage projects.
Drones deliver many of the benefits that are commonly in demand at modern-day mining operations and exploration projects.
Not only do drones help companies improve their safety performance, but they can also be applied to lift productivity and reduce costs.
The growing number of Australian-based and international drone specialists or businesses that have entered the marketplace reflects the value the technology is expected to have in the future.
Global Drone Solutions (GDS) has emerged as a certified remote aircraft system operator and drone pilot training company in Western Australia over the past three years.
While GDS provides its services to a variety of industries, it has worked closely with the mining industry as drones have grown in prominence in the industry.
GDS chief executive officer Mahmood Hussein said drones had initially become popular with mining companies for maintenance activities, with the major miners moving first to invest in the technology during the past decade.
“Since then they have realised they can use drones for a lot more things in terms of maintenance,” Hussein told Australian Mining.
“One of the things they have established is that they want to build the profile of their large overland conveyors.
“One of the problems with the conveyors is that the bearings and the rollers can overheat and breakdown but with a drone and camera they are able to track the different temperatures which would tell them when to expect a breakdown.”
With the basic functions of drones proving valuable in mining settings, companies continue to trial new models to take advantage of advanced features that emerge as the technology evolves.
Diversified miner South32 launched a new drone trial earlier this year with Israeli company Airobotics when it deployed a fully automated, industrial grade multi-purpose drone platform at the Worsley Alumina operations in WA.
The Airobotics platform conducts programmed missions including inspections of equipment and conducting surveying and mapping activities.
South32 uses the platform to capture data and insights across the Worsley site in a 3D digital environment, enabling future improvements at the operation.
Airobotics vice president Yahel Nov said the first aim of the trial was to automate the surveying process for South32 at Worsley, with specific focus on the operation’s processing plant.
“Through automation we want to take the surveying frequency (at Worsley) from monthly or semi-monthly to potentially daily,” Nov told Australian Mining.
“That’s how we started, and we then moved on to inspection trials, specifically thermal inspections of infrastructure that contains hot liquid or pollutants.
“The idea is that they won’t need to inspect these areas by walking or driving along them…rather someone in the safety of an office can check the video from the drone, put it on fast forward and condense and hour of footage into 10 minutes.”
Airobotics’ industrial-grade platform comprises a high-capacity drone, an automated base station and cloud-based software. It is fully automatic, unmanned and doesn’t require a pilot for operation.
The drone automatically launches from a freestanding station called the Airbase, and is sent on a pre-programmed or on-demand mission to collect aerial data, such as inspecting equipment or machinery, surveying and mapping stockpiles, or monitoring for emergencies or security breaches.
Once a mission is complete the drone returns to the Airbase, where a robotic arm replaces its battery and payload before deploying the next mission.
“Our drone lends itself to mining because of the automation aspect of it. The fact that you don’t need qualified personnel, or pilots, it is easier for mining to adopt it,” Nov explained.
“Then it is also weather proof, so that helps in environments where it is very dusty, it rains a lot or there are high winds – our drone can tolerate extreme conditions.”
According to BHP, the company South32 was spun-out from in 2015, its drone trials are suggesting the technology will help transform the mining industry in the future.
BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) head of production Frans Knox said there were many examples of drones making mining safer, most obviously by helping keep people out of harm’s way.
At some of BHP’s coal mines in Queensland, drones are used to ensure areas are clear before a blast takes place and to track fumes post blast, Knox explained.
“They’re also used to improve road safety on sites, by monitoring traffic, road conditions and hazards,” Knox said in a blog post on BHP’s website.
“At our Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, the maintenance team use them to help inspect overhead cranes, towers and roofs of tall buildings to avoid working at height.”
He added BHP was also becoming more productive by using drones.
“We’ve been trialling drones fitted with military-grade cameras to provide real time aerial footage and 3D maps of our sites,” he continued.
“This is far cheaper than using planes for survey work, and the savings at our sites in Queensland alone are estimated to be $5 million a year.
“With drones, we now gather more information about our sites than ever before. We can more quickly and accurately measure our stockpiles, review compliance to design against mine plans and understand where we need to make changes to improve safety or boost productivity.”
BHP’s heritage manager, Daniel Bruckner, also uses drones to map and digitally record areas of cultural heritage near its sites in the Pilbara region.
“For me, the bigger picture is what this technology allows us to do that could never have been done before, and for us that means being able to share and preserve cultural heritage that might otherwise have been lost,” Bruckner said.
“We’re now able to share all our footage with local Aboriginal groups, and they’re excited about that possibility.”
Knox said the technology would change the nature of work, including surveyors spending less time gathering data in the field and more time interpreting it with drones being able to deliver samples from site.
“And soon, more drones could be managed by ‘pilots’ operating from a range of different vantage points. Drones are a good case study for how we want to introduce new technology into BHP Billiton,” Knox concluded.
Foreign-based drone companies like Airobotics have been joined in Australia by several other international drone manufacturers and operators that are specifically targeting the mining industry.
Japanese unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) provider Terra Drone launched an office in Brisbane this year with the aim of bringing more drone technology to the Australian mining sector.
Integrating LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) laser scanning sensors, the company uses UAV solutions that are accurate within three centimetres and can provide 3D models with high definition.
The systems provide surveying services directly to the mining, construction and infrastructure management companies, capable of providing forestry and vegetation data capture, and assessing encroachment on powerlines and critical infrastructure.
The company also plans to offer hardware and software solutions to third party drone operators.
Airobotics and Terra Drone enter the Australian marketplace confident the use of drones in the mining sector will expand in the coming years.
Nov believes the mining industry is only a few years away from seeing every company owning either a fixed wing or rotary drone – if not both.
“Nearly all tier 1 companies utilise drones. It’s part of the reason why we decided to go into mining first because it is a proven market,” Nov said.
“The problems that mines have are what led them to use drones in the first place. It is a dangerous environment and it has expensive personnel, so anything they can introduce to use remotely is good.
“Our drone is a multi-rotor so it is very high precision tool. Other drones are fixed wing so they don’t have the same precision but they provide large coverage and that’s what you will find many exploration companies using.”
Airobotics is also targeting Australia’s oil and gas industry, which will require drones for a variety of purposes at the mega liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants that have been developed around the country. The company is hopeful of establishing an Australian headquarters in Perth as its business grows.
GDS usually trains smaller businesses in the operation of drones, including early stage or exploration companies, from its Perth base.
Hussein said more junior mining companies were investing in drones for exploration-related activities such as environmental monitoring,
“A company I was recently speaking to, when they set up their mine, they used a botanist to check the flora and fauna at the site,” he explained.
“Companies still need a botanist – they have to document every bit of flora and fauna – but by flying a drone across it they are capturing more data, more accurately and in about a third of the time.
“Once the company is finished there they then have a video and photos they can refer to which helps to return the site back to what it was like.”
And it isn’t just mining companies that are applying drones to the industry, with the Northern Territory Government investing in the technology to inspect legacy mines to help aid remediation efforts.
Drones are being used in the NT to reach previously inaccessible areas of mines, producing digital terrain models to give operators a better perspective of the site.
During the past summer legacy sites in the NT like Orlando, Warrego, Nobles Nob and the Peko mine were inspected by drones.
This article also appears in the June edition of Australian Mining.