The ever-changing face of technology has seen the use of drones become commonplace in a number of areas of the mining industry, but particularly so in Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations.
In the past year Rio Tinto has planned and tested the use of drones for environmental and heritage surveys, inspections of equipment such as conveyors, pit wall inspections, gathering aerial imagery, thermal imaging, and geotechnical inspections.
Technology and innovation executive at Rio Tinto, Greg Lilleyman, says the company has seen immense potential for drones to help extend the advantage the miner holds through the innovative use of technology, which can help to improve the safety and productivity of their operations.
“Information will be the single biggest differentiating factor between the mining operations of the past and those in the future, and drones can produce a wealth of information to allow us to make better decisions,” Lilleyman said.
“Anyone can buy a drone and they’re easy to operate, but the trick is having the best minds working out what you do with them.
“We’re constantly thinking outside the box to imagine how they can be integrated into our mining operations to make complex tasks safer, quicker and cheaper, as well as working with regulators to meet their requirements.”
Lilleyman said Rio Tinto was already using drones to monitor sites and inspect equipment, in order to minimise tasks safety risks to employees, as well as time and disruptions to operations.
“Other innovative uses we are finding include tasks like monitoring remote turtle nesting sites and spraying weeds as part of our environmental programs.”
“Some of the future uses we can already see include monitoring geo-technical issues in difficult to access areas and inspecting vast stretches of infrastructure like power and rail lines, and we’re sure there will be many more.”
Earlier this month aviation specialist Kevan Reeve talked at the SGS Symposium in Perth to outline the ways drones are improving aerial survey ability, and in turn the productivity at Rio Tinto iron ore mines in WA .
So far the chief benefit of drone use to be identified has been to remove employees from hazardous tasks such as stockpile survey, where loose ground and destabilisation of the stockpiles can result in serious injury.
But there several other areas of benefit such as productivity increases, enabled through reduction of downtime for inspections, allowing machinery and equipment to continue operation without shutdown while the inspection takes place.
In turn, surveying of large areas can be done in a very short space of time, compared to when a surveyor has been required to walk the same area.
Cost reductions are also implemented through the absence of need for other equipment (such as scaffolding) to conduct inspections, as well as the fact that in most cases drones are significantly cheaper than helicopters for aerial survey.
Rio Tinto currently uses rotary wing drones at the Argyle diamond operations in the Kimberley to monitor pit/wall movement above the underground block caving. Since September 2014 Rio Tinto have used the Aibotix X6 UAV to survey the pit floor for subsidence and other potential dangers to underground workers.
Rio Tinto’s iron ore division uses fixed wing drones for site and remote survey work, and rotary wing drones allow easier, low impact survey of turtle nesting sites on coastal areas.
Coal operations in NSW also use fixed wing drones to survey stockpile inventories, while rotary wing drones are used to perform boom inspections on draglines and weed spraying, and in Queensland stockpile inventories are done on aluminium sites.
Fortescue Metals has also recently announced the deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles which would be used to survey the Cloudbreak Mine.
With two Cloudbreak employees having completed the Civil Aviation Safety Authority UAV controller training, another four were undergoing training at the start of September.
Fortescue brought in the new technology as a means of conducting stockpile surveys while reducing the health and safety risks typically faced by the survey team when on the ground.
Until now Fortescue has used third-party contractors to conduct aerial surveys and other drone activity, but with trials successful it is understood the miner will be looking at having the technology in-house.