The Use of Drones in Mining

Drones and the digital mine

Drones, otherwise known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems, (UAV or UAS) are beginning to have a profound effect on mining. The regulatory process is catching up with the technology, and by 2022, the international drone market is expected to be worth US$21.23 billion, growing at a rate of about 20 percent annually.

  • UAS Sales Manager, Bryan Baker, and Mine Planning Specialist, Johnny Lyons-Baral, explain the many advantages of using UAS and point clouds in blast optimization and general mining operations. Watch here.

Hexagon Mining is shaping change by applying UAVs to solve challenges in the industry: better blast optimization, improved safety, faster surveying, and construction of the most comprehensive and continuous project datasets.

Foot traffic is not allowed or is ill-advised in many parts of a mine. Obtaining measurements with a surveying rod, total station or GNSS can be problematic. UAV aerial photography and remote sensing allow us to capture all that information without putting someone in harm’s way.

Aerial photogrammetry has been around for as long as the airplane. For mining though, a manned aircraft was too expensive and too inconvenient for regular airborne photogrammetry. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are a natural fit for mining and the advent of the lithium polymer battery has transformed development of airborne photogrammetry.

Data can now be captured in near real time from areas that would otherwise be inaccessible or unsafe for staff. Whether it’s for blast fragmentation, stockpile volumes, or any other mine-related activity, data can be captured quickly and safely.

Leica Geosystems subsidiary, Aibotix, is at the forefront of pushing photogrammetry’s boundaries with its core product, the Aibot X6. The Aibot X6 is an autonomously flying hexacopter, specifically designed for demanding tasks in surveying, mining, and industrial inspection. Equipped with a high level of artificial intelligence, this UAV reaches almost any target and can independently create high resolution images and videos. A unique feature of the Aibot X6 offers the possibility to adapt varying kinds of sensors, such as hyper- and multispectral sensors, infrared and thermal sensors and sensors for other industry-specific missions.

Data captured by the Aibot X6 commercial UAV and the software solutions of Aibotix and Hexagon allow mines to generate orthophotos, 3D models, and high-density point clouds with great accuracy. The Aibot’s ability to hover and take photos at any angle make it ideally suited to stockpile and muck pile monitoring and analysis, plus rock mass characterization, and plant, equipment and highwall inspections.

MineSight mine planning software is well equipped to handle point clouds. Its point-cloud data type features a high level of detail rendering capability, akin to a gaming rendering. The software is capable of displaying billions of points at a time, averaging out points in the pixels with level detail rendering, saving computer memory while displaying high-resolution images. MineSight’s Point Cloud Mesher turns large data sets into topographic surfaces, tunnels, drifts and stopes, and any other solids and surfaces available from point clouds. It allows mines to quickly go from field capture to usable data for optimization. The tool removes errors and noise from the data to ensure clean surfaces are available for downstream processes. The color point cloud can be displayed over the optimized surface to allow feature extraction and geologic interpretation.

For larger-scale aerial surveys, Leica recently added the long-range capabilities of the RF-70 fixed wing UAV. The RF-70 can fly up to one hour at higher speeds, allowing it to survey one square mile (640 acres) per flight. This UAV can survey the entire pit, tailings impoundments, waste dumps, and leach pads.

With all the flight planning and data capture features of the Aibot, the newer RF-70 UAV is a complementary partner to provide mines with the tools they need to quickly and easily map their entire mine. The addition of terrestrial laser scanners completes the surveying picture, inside and out. The digital mine of the future will need all of these remote surveying sensors along with automated control and processing software to create complete digital project models.

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