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Autonomous exploration: the potential of drones in mining

Drone technology has the potential to be one of the most disruptive technologies in the mining industry, especially if prices are falling.
Of all the buzzwords in the mining industry, “drone” and “automation” are the most popular, and for good reason.The latter is of broad interest to players across the mining industry, especially as Australia is emerging as a hub for autonomous technology and research, while the former’s potential for mapping and information gathering is an attractive proposition for miners forced to search further afield. of minerals to satisfy the world’s insatiable demand for commodities.
In fact, the mining industry may be reaching a tipping point where these technologies are transitioning from shiny new ideas to mature and embedded components in the industry, especially in exploration.With many of the world’s undeveloped and unidentified deposits difficult to reach on foot, or simply isolated from human settlements and developments, the prospect of independent drones conducting mineral surveys away from human oversight is attractive.
However, technical and human challenges remain, drones themselves are an imperfect solution, and the prospect of replacing human workers with intelligent machines could set a dangerous precedent for the future of mining.Can these obstacles be overcome to realize the exploration potential of drones?
The benefits of drones in the exploration industry are clear, as they provide a way to take pictures from high and relatively remote locations, capturing large swaths of the environment.However, their benefits go beyond photography, the process of orthophotos provides a more complex snapshot of the environment.
“The drone collects photos embedded with telemetry, including the spatial location of the image sensor at the time each photo was collected,” explains Mike Murphy, director of exploration and land staff at Burgex, a mining consultancy that provides orthophotography services to clients.
This spatial standardization enables miners to view and assess potential mining sites in greater detail than simple photos, allowing them to plan the size and scope of mining projects before they break ground.Additionally, as Murphy explains, this approach minimizes the distorting effects of terrain and environmental features that often interfere with planning efforts.
“A large part of the area where we work contains a lot of terrain relief; [for] a project we just did a few weeks ago in Oregon, we were looking at about 1,000 acres where there was historical mining and within the over 2,500 feet of terrain,” Murphy continued.”There are distinct slopes, there are rocky outcrops, dense vegetation, trees and so on.
“During post-processing, ground measurement points and terrain data are used for further geometric correction, merging spatially adjacent images, or orthorectification to align measurements taken from a photomosaic or set of photos. A pixel will represent A given amount of space, so you can make very accurate distance measurements on the image without distortion from the terrain.”
In the long run, these terrain images also serve a certain purpose.Their complexity means they can serve as the basis for environmental restoration work, which is done decades after the mine was first built, allowing miners to recreate the environment before the mine was built.
“Our clients should have an image or set of surface images before they’re disturbed because that’s part of the permit, and once mining is done 20, 30, 40 [or] you need to renovate the land, but, years later,” Mo said Fei said, noting that state and national land restoration requirements in the U.S. in particular mean that orthophotos are particularly effective there.
[The company will] be required by government agencies to go back and restore or renovate the land to its pre-disturbance state, so they will have a historical map or a large orthomosaic.”
Despite these potential benefits, there are still obstacles to wider adoption of drones in exploration, starting with the environment itself.
Weather is certainly not a big factor [underground], but on the ground most drones can’t fly even in light rain,” Murphy explained. “Then the lighting conditions need to be suitable to collect the right images.
You don’t want the sun angle to be so high that you get a lot of shadows [and] generally we don’t collect those shadows if there’s no snow at all because that affects ground height because the main deliverable for aerial surveys is not only Just a photo, it’s also a 3D model of the earth’s surface.
Difficult environmental conditions can be a chronic sticking point for drones, not only in mining but also in a range of industrial activities, as light, rain and snow are not factors that human actors can control.However, many other challenges facing drone operators are not unique to drones and can be mitigated by technological advancements in the wider industry.
Of course, one of the limitations is the lack of access to wireless networks in most of the areas where we operate.They are far away.The technology has to be completely self-contained, and many drone kits require the same type of wireless conductivity and national networks; if you don’t have a cell phone connection, there’s nothing to connect to.
He continued: Of course there is the ability.[For] the dataset we’re collecting, [spans] 700 acres, 800 acres, you’re taking 7000 images, each of which is around 12 megabytes.So add all the data together​​[produce] hundreds of gigabytes of data, and then you run into limitations in CPU capacity, processing power, and even storage capacity.Do you store it in a local server or in the cloud and then incur charges and make it difficult to bring all these data types into a large survey and be able to interact with it and manipulate it scale and pan.”
However, as communications technology evolves, as well as the efficiency and availability of storage solutions, these issues may not pose a long-term threat to the survivability of drones.In fact, Murphy added, small drones, especially those used to map underground passages, may lack the ability to carry sensors and power packs, which can account for as much as two-thirds of the weight of some drones. , but this can impact a range of industries through technological miniaturization.
Murphy also noted that, contrary to doomsday warnings about intelligent machines taking jobs from human workers, humans will always have a role to play in mapping and exploration.
“There always needs to be someone there, at least in terms of surveillance capabilities,” Murphy said.”Because all kinds of things can go wrong, whether it’s a rig, or a haul truck, there’s going to be some issues, and that’s going to require a person to monitor those things.
So the future of mining exploration work is not the absence of work at all, but a change in the nature of work, from directly operating cameras and soil sampling equipment to overseeing the operation of drones.
Murphy noted that, at least for Burgex, this shift towards retraining and retraining workers has led to a hiring philosophy that values ​​flexibility and learning rather than proficiency in specific static skills, a move that has enabled mining exploration The industry is on track in line with many other industrial sectors experiencing rapid growth in autonomous technology.
“We don’t have a large group of people who now have obsolete jobs and we have nothing to do, it’s more about finding the right people from the start who are capable of training, capable of doing manual work, and capable of adapting to new technology , troubleshooting and leveraging the mental capabilities of field technology,” he explained.
We will have people who are not highly trained, but they are excellent field technicians.These people certainly have the ability to learn how to operate these things and program them, and that’s where we come in.”
There’s also what Murphy calls a “safety feature” associated with the development of drone technology, where human workers no longer need to enter potentially hazardous or remote environments to complete exploration work, a move that will directly benefit human workers, not pose a threat to their employment prospects.
While it remains to be seen whether Burgex’s emphasis on flexibility and reskilling can be applied more broadly and effectively to the mining industry, the company’s work could set a precedent for balancing the increasing automation and human employment in the mining industry.