Why use drones in mining?
Mining and aggregates
Professionals who adapt drones into their mining operations quickly realize the significant added value they bring to their industry.
Namely, drones in mining improve the overall efficiency of large mine site and quarry management by providing accurate and comprehensive data detailing site conditions in a very short time. They also support better coordination among teams onsite and internationally, offering dynamic oversight of all operations.
Above all, this data can be safely produced by on-site workers who have minimal surveying experience at a fraction of the cost of traditional survey methods.
Using drones in mining can deliver significant added value. What are the benefits for mining professionals and in which applications can they be best used?
What is a drone mining survey?
In an open-pit mine or quarry, a drone survey refers to the use of a drone (or UAV – unmanned aerial vehicle) equipped with a downward-facing RGB camera to capture images of a site from different vantage points. Out of these images, a photogrammetry software can recreate geo-referenced 3D maps, contour lines digital terrain models or digital surface models of the mining site. Mining operators can also easily extract the precise volume of stockpiles or areas to be excavated. Some advanced mining software can also generate industry-specific data such as safety berm heights; crests and toes; road boundaries; widths; crests; slope, length, and elevation change. Beyond this, artificial intelligence in the software can automatically highlight those that do not comply with standards or constitutes a potential threat to the workers’ safety.
What are drones used for in mining?
Since stockpiles are by nature irregular in shape and exhibiting craters, it is difficult to estimate their volume with great precision using traditional methods such as GNSS surveying. These slow and costly methods also prohibit frequent surveys and can even threaten the surveyor’s safety, as they must climb up and down stockpiles and/or work in the middle of moving machinery.
Better inventory and financial data
Drone aerial images can be used to generate point clouds, digital surface models, digital terrain models and a 3D reconstruction of a mining site, including its stockpiles. As the point cloud contains several thousand data points, very accurate volume calculations can now be performed easily. This enables high-accuracy calculation of stockpile value for monthly reconciliations or year-end audits, which improves the consistency of inventory reports in the company’s balance sheet. Because drone results and post-processing software are unbiased, you can also validate the amount of material moved by subcontractors .
More and better data for monthly or weekly management
Given the speed at which inventory surveys can now be conducted with drones, frequent data collection is proving itself to be cost-effective; be it weekly, monthly or quarterly. Specifically, it allows better forecasting of the mineral stock available for sale. You can fly your site as often as you like, without having to wait for a semi-annual aerial survey audit. Because you have the ability to run regular data collections, you improve inventory and operational management while eliminating the risks that surveyors working physically on the site face.
Mine or quarry monitoring and operation planning
With an accurate site model produced from drone aerial images, mine managers can now more efficiently design and manage site operations while collaborating across teams. This is because they can more accurately assess the volume of material that must be extracted or moved according to plans or legal standards.
Aerial images of the site enable regular visual assessment of the state of haul roads as well. This provides valuable data such as length, slope and turning angles. With this information, you can optimize roads for your haul fleet by accounting for the specifications that cut fuel costs while ensuring that your mine is within planning and regulatory requirements. In general, drone data helps ensure that roads are built to design and that they meet current legal standards.
Water and sediment flow
Drones in mining can also help prevent operations disruption due to unwanted or uncontrolled water or sediment flow. Flow and tailings pond operations can be modelled from the digital elevation maps produced by drone images. Because it is possible to fly frequently with a drone, you can create a visual record of the site over time and monitor progress on a weekly or monthly basis and store this for future operations or regulatory audits.
Assessment before and after drilling or blasting
By using drones in mining, you produce cost-effective and accessible 3D reconstructions and surface models for areas to be blasted or drilled.
These models help accurately analyze the area to be drilled and calculate the volume to be extracted post blasting. This data allows you to better manage resources such as the number of trucks needed. A comparison against surveys taken before and after the blasting will allow volumes to be calculated more accurately. This improves planning for future blasts, cutting the cost of explosives, time on site and drilling.
Hazard identification and mitigation
Due to the busy nature of mine sites and quarries, workers’ safety is a priority. With the high-resolution images from drones, you can inspect otherwise difficult-to-access or high-traffic areas of the site, without endangering yourself our any workers.
Aerial images provided regularly by drones help planners regularly monitor mine features such as slopes on tailings dams. They also help ensure that the regular maintenance of dams are completed in a timely and safe manner. This can go far to prevent disasters like the one seen at the Brumadinho site in Brazil. Drone data gives regulators a record of the state of the tailing dam over time.
Drone data can yield high-resolution orthophotos and DSM maps that support mining exploration projects in areas where it is difficult to navigate on foot. The use of drones costs only a fraction of the price of traditional manned aviation surveys. And compared to ground survey equipment, it would take a team of land surveyors weeks to collect the same amount of data that a drone can collect in a few hours.
In this case of a mineral exploration survey for Finnish mining companies in the Lapland region of northern Finland, two areas of 206 km2 (80 mi2) each were mapped with drones, providing an accuracy of 5 cm (2 in) / px at a fraction of the cost of airplane surveys and in much less time than it would take with land-based surveying methods.
What kinds of maps can you expect from mining drones?
Drone-generated data is a series of overlapping images containing geospatial information, which are stitched together through a process called photogrammetry. Each pixel of each image contains its own georeferenced location in space. The maps highlighted below are outputs that can be produced by all major photogrammetry software.
3D point cloud
A densified point cloud can be generated from drone images and data. Each point contains geospatial (X, Y, Z) and color information. It provides a very accurate model of a site for precise volume measurements and visual insights that enhance future planning.
File formats: .las, .laz, .ply, .xyz
Digital terrain model (DTM)
After filtering objects such as buildings, machines and conveyor belts, drone images can be used to create digital terrain models, with each pixel containing 2.5D information (X, Y, and Z values of the highest altitude). These models allow you to identify stockpiles and pit changes, and to model water flows and wall collapses.
File formats: GeoTiff (.tif)
3D textured mesh
3D textured mesh is a reproduction of the edges, faces, walls, vertices and textures of the area captured by the drone. This visual depiction of a quarry or mining site is most useful for inspecting unreachable areas, such as pits and slopes.
File formats: .ply, .fbx, .dxf, .obj, .pdf
What are the benefits of drones in mining?
Highly accurate measurements
By providing thousands of data points for one stockpile, drone surveys are far more accurate than surveying with total stations. All surface unevenness and undulation is identified. The surveys make it possible to reduce the deviation in stockpile volume calculations, to generate improved base files for stockpiling, and to produce more accurate financial statements and regulatory checks.
Traditional GNSS survey
Hundreds of data points are collected, including steep slopes or craters sometimes invisible from the ground.
Faster and easily-repeatable mining surveys at low cost
Capturing data with a drone is up to 30 times faster than with traditional land-based methods and does not require the presence of a surveyor on site. You can easily collect the data yourself and at a frequency best suited to your site for rapid data turn-around. Changes between two surveys can be tracked and highlighted automatically. Over the long term, the costs of surveying and monitoring are substantially reduced.
Improving worker and site-safety management
Drones allow you to survey parts of the mine or quarry that are normally difficult to access with traditional surveying equipment. This eliminates the hazards employees typically face while walking through dangerous zones, navigating active sites or climbing onto stockpiles. All this without disrupting the flow of operations and movement of machinery.
Best drones for surveying mines and quarries
WingtraOne VTOL mapping drone
Diverging topography, altitude, gravel, steep terrain, and harsh weather conditions, as well as the absence of smooth surfaces required for take-off and landing: the WingtraOne mapping drone overcomes all of these surveying challenges in some of the harshest mining environments.
Take off and land vertically (VTOL)
Unlike other fixed-wing drones, which require wide areas and soft terrain to land, the WingtraOne can take off from confined areas and land smoothly on gravel and in open-mine pits.
In addition, unlike other fixed-wing aircraft with cameras facing damage from impact with the rocky ground during belly landings, the WingtraOne lands vertically. This means the cameras are protected from shock, abrasion, dust and dirt when operating in mining sites.
42 Megapixels / 0.7 cm (0.3 in) GSD
With its 42 MP Sony RX1R II full-frame camera, WingtraOne can fly at a high altitude over a deep mine pit and still deliver low GSD images. This allows large mining sites and quarries to be surveyed faster and with high accuracy.
This level of accuracy is crucial for the estimation of stockpiles volumes. Indeed, volume estimations will always be inaccurate due to the nature and shape of the minerals. Improving the accuracy of volume estimation by only a few centimetres/inches can mean reducing the calculated stocks by several tonnes, which can prevent a potential loss of estimated profits at the end of the year. This is just one of the ways drone photogrammetry can deliver a substantial return on investment (ROI).
Robust and siteproof
Engineered and assembled in Switzerland, WingtraOne operates and delivers results according to the highest quality standards. It is extensively used in diverse mining environments: from deep mine pits in Serbia, to the large surface mines and greenfield operations of the Namibian desert and the challenging weather conditions of the gold mines in the DRC.
Down to 1 cm (0.4 in) absolute accuracy
Other mining drones for surveying applications
Other popular drones include the DJI Phantom 4 RTK and the Sensefly eBee. They both come with their advantages and disadvantages. The DJI Phantom 4 RTK can be an attractive alternative for mine or quarry managers who are unsure about the ROI from drones in their operations and want to start their drone program with a low-cost option. However, this choice will result in some limitations in terms of coverage, endurance and image resolution. Compared to a VTOL or fixed-wing aircraft, the DJI drone will likely require more flights and human resources to survey a site of the same size with the same image quality. You will also want to consider the level of support you will need, as mining operations are generally in isolated locations and require support on site or in the same time zone.
Another popular choice is the fixed-wing eBee, which provides a wider coverage than the DJI, but is only suitable for mining sites that feature a large, smooth and soft landing surface, ideally a grass field. Indeed, this fixed-wing aircraft lands on its belly, where the payload is mounted. This makes both the drone and its cameras very vulnerable to abrasion, dust and dirt. Multiple landings on rough terrain can permanently affect the operation of the camera and of the drone.
What are real applications of drones in mining?
How have drones actually been successfully used by mining companies? Do professionals really experience higher data quality and accuracy while cutting time and costs compared to traditional surveying? See how mining operators and surveyors are successfully using the WingtraOne VTOL mapping drone in real-life cases:
Mapping one of Europe’s largest mine
RTB is the biggest copper mining and smelting complex in Serbia, consisting of four pits with depths up to 600 metres (1970 feet), some of which can hardly be reached with ground-based surveying equipment. After a transfer of ownership, they were required to update the mine’s ground data and used a WingtraOne VTOL mapping drone to survey the pits.
Coal mining operation turns to drones for regular views of their worksite
The Jellinbah group has conducted ground-based and airplane surveys of its coal mine in Australia for 30 years. Ground-based surveys took a full day, while airplane surveys cost thousands of dollars. Thanks to drone technology, they now obtain more accurate and frequent details at mine sites for only 10% of the time and money they previously spent:
Africa’s largest uranium mine surveying
At a Namibian mine, surveyors used a WingtraOne drone to survey the entire mining site and produce exact volumetric measurements for a high-pressure year-end audit. Due to tight deadlines, land surveyors have ruled out the use of terrestrial surveying methods. They also ruled out the use of manned aircraft because the accuracy and resolution requirements could not be met. “The ease of flight planning means that small last-minute changes to flight plans designed at the office could easily be made to meet the conditions encountered on site” according to Hermann Strydom from Strydom & Associates.
Drone surveys replaced helicopter surveys in quarries
What is the best drone mining software?
The best drone mining (or photogrammetry) software depends on the applications and the scale of the project(s) deployed. We recommend Sitescan, DroneDeploy or Delair.ai. All of these platforms can produce 2D and 3D maps. And each solution has advanced features specific to the mining industry. Delair.ai, for example, can automatically identify and measure stockpiles and quarry features. Mine managers can also quickly share data und updates with stakeholders in real time through features like notifications.
Drone mapping in other applications
Learn how mapping drones can improve decisions, cut costs and risks, and improve ROI in industries like surveying and GIS, mining or environmental research.
Drone technology represents a huge potential for surveyors and GIS professionals. It greatly cuts the cost and work hours of data capture. Further, you can survey otherwise unreachable areas and deliver high-resolution aerial maps that would be otherwise impossible to produce in a safe or cost-effective way.
The WingtraOne professional drone produces multispectral imagery to provide accurate plant counts or identify plants’ health problems early on. This data can be used to prevent costly spread of diseases or invasive species. It can also provide valuable insights to boost yield productivity.