Drones for mining: how to use and choose what’s best

graphic with wingtraone drone surveying a mine site

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The top companies in the world have already started to integrate drones for mining. In fact drones have proven to be vital tools across every part and phase of a mine site—from exploration, to drilling and blasting, to reclamation.

So they are definitely here to stay. Today, the question about drones is no longer if they work, but rather which drone mining platforms are best for getting the most benefits.

In fact, it’s possible to save a lot of time and money with the right drone for mining applications that would otherwise present huge challenges with a sub-par system.

Let’s get started in learning how to make the most cost-effective choice when investing in mining drone technology.

Drones for mining

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How are drones used in mining to boost operations?

Every mine presents its own unique challenges. Chances are good that they are based on one of the following key jobs that drone mapping makes easier across the life cycle of a mine site:

Targeting the exact location of mining operations

Gold explorations survey in Finland

Gold exploration in the north of Finland: This orthomosaic map—covering more than 200 km2 (80 mi2)—was produced by MWH Geo-Surveys Ltd. using the WingtraOne surveying and mapping drone.

Drones enhance mining exploration by delivering clear and accurate maps of even the most rough terrain to pinpoint excavation planning.

Drones for mineral exploration

Aerial data from drones helps produce base geology maps for planning and excavation of assets.

Hazard identification 

Correcting potentially-dangerous site features and avoiding safety hazards is easier when you have more frequent and more accurate surveys of all of the active areas of your mine. This has been well known and researched since earlier days of the technology.

Haul roads

Measure, monitor and update haul roads with accurate data from mining drones.

True-to-life photogrammetry outputs like this orthomosaic, based on data captured by WingtraOne, offer clear views of haul roads in the context of larger areas as well as the ability to zoom in on, measure and monitor them in great detail via elevation profiles.

Underground

Specially-designed mining drones are collision tolerant and equipped with lights and real-time controls for quick inspections of underground environments that cut costs and boost safety.

Water and sediment flow monitoring

It’s easier to manage your site and prevent setbacks and hazards related to uncontrolled water movement with more frequent aerial surveys based on a more accurate comparison of terrain and water levels. Mine sites also need tight water treatment and management plans to begin aligning to the technological age of industry.

Drilling and blasting

Get precise and detailed aerial views of drill patterns and blasting results.

Drone data enables close and thorough inspection of drill patterns and hole distances based on high-accuracy location information.

Post-processing software enables quick and accurate measurements of areas and distances, helping to control the blast area for fly rocks and other safety hazards.

Stockpile management

With drones, measuring volumes is based on hundreds of times more data points and is 100 percent safe since data can be captured from a distance vs. climbing on slopes.

Maintaining tailings dams and ponds 

Prevent unexpected activity and leaks with clearer, more frequent drone survey data. Additionally, more sophisticated analytics are available to prevent breaks when using data-rich drone imagery.

Reclamation

Returning land to its original state is much more feasible if you have data that allows you to see how the land has changed and what needs to be done to return it to the original state.

Reporting and auditing

Tracking and recording what happens onsite is much easier with a history of accurate aerial or underground imagery providing exact figures to present or compare with contractors.

This WingtraOne data-based flythrough video from BNI Coal covers 215 acres (87 hectares) of their active surface mine site. The fact that this entire area can be captured in one or two WingtraOne flights (depending on wind speeds) allows for more frequent capturing and clearer reporting and auditing of the site over time.

How to conduct a drone mining survey in 5 steps

1 Choose a durable drone unaffected by dust and rocky ground

First make sure your drone will get all the data you need without setbacks or damage.

2 Make sure your mining drone collects good data over changing heights

For open pit mining inspection applications, you’ll need an aerial survey that offers enough accuracy from the deepest part of your site.

3 Set up your active site ground control

Depending on the drone you choose, your setup will be more or less involved. A mine drone with a post-processed kinematic (PPK) receiver will cut down your ground control significantly, because the technology corrects the data so you will only need a few checkpoints to verify accuracy.

4 Fly the drone

Good drones are easy to operate and see from a distance as you capture data. They will also get the most data in the least amount of flights and time so that you can take advantage of good weather and free up your time for other projects.

As a real-world example, John Adjaye, Unit Survey Manager at Gold Fields Ghana’s Tarkwa Mine, commented about the WingtraOne VTOL aerial mapping platform: “We can do one flight and cover all our stockpiles. This one is such a plus, and it works well for us. We can then come down and process all that data at a go.”

*Field time includes setup and changing batteries. This data was generated using Wingtra’s coverage and labor cost calculator. The calculator estimates the field time and labor costs associated with data collection, using a model based on the technical specifications of each drone under common environmental conditions and flight parameters.

5 Process, analyze and share the data

Make sure your aerial drone data is compatible with the software you plan to use for outputs. Check software to see what works best for sharing information, inspection, reconciliation, auditing, reporting and planning.

Why is stockpile management better with drones?

Whether for piles of Earth or rare minerals, stockpile management surveys can either cost or save a lot of money.

To get the best volume information, you need an accurate measure of a surface to calculate what is inside. If that surface is inaccurate, the volume accuracy will be much moreso.

For example, an inch difference across a surface is going to be hundreds of thousands of square inches of volume difference. 

Manage and report volumes with confidence

These differences can be costly when you are measuring to reconcile contracts, report specific amounts of minerals or assets, or reconcile work during an audit. They also make it difficult to plan work.

A good mining drone will collect reliable, accurate data as frequently as you need for all of your stockpiles. With it, you can reconcile all contracts, report all raw material and Earth moved, and plan realistically. You also have an accurate record of all of your operations for future inspection.

Survey resolution
350
x
more data points than with traditional GNSS survey

Traditional GNSS survey

GNSS stockpile measurement
Only a few data points can be collected, craters and steep slopes are often overlooked.

Drone survey

Accurate stockpile volume measurement with drone survey

Hundreds of data points are collected, including steep slopes or craters sometimes invisible from the ground.

What are the safety benefits of drones in mining?

Preventing accidents and downtime

Mine site accidents are tragic, expensive and—thanks to mining drones—more avoidable than ever. In fact, with a PPK-equipped drone, you only need to enter a site once to place checkpoints.

This boosts safety among surveyors, since the actual data collection can be done from a distance for all surveys of the same area. Surveyors stay safe, and your site stays running and incident-free.

Removing risks in underground environments

Drone technology in underground mining situations replaces human checking of ground conditions, tunnel walls, blasting areas and general site stability so that any risks can be discovered without exposing workers to them.

How do mine drone outputs help you report and audit?

With the advent of better data, comes advantages when auditing contractors and a demand for it from third parties.

In the case of contractors, a quick scroll through a weekly or bi-weekly drone survey outputs of your entire active area will immediately show you what’s been moved and done.

Use the tools in your software suite to measure and reconcile progress.

Keep up with transparency standards

Beyond this, government bodies and the public now realize the new level of detail they can ask for. So now they want it.

Are you prepared to provide it? With a good mining drone that captures your sites via regular surveys, you’ll have everything you need to prove compliance with a few clicks.

The pressure to be transparent in your operations is only going to grow. Frequent mine drone surveys are a bullet-proof way to keep records and keep you nimble for any changes.

For one example, keeping track of water usage will not only reduce the burden on this resource, but will also keep your company ahead of efficiency monitoring and regulations.

Provide proof of responsibility

This all leads to the current environmental, social and government (ESG) reporting schemes that especially apply to the mining industry.

With reliable, comprehensive, frequent drone surveys, you will not only be able to manage your site more precisely around regulations, but you will also be ready to prove you are working within agreed protocols.

What are the main drone data outputs?

When all the photos from your mining drone surveying are stitched together, you can access different kinds of mapping views in your post-processing software to get all the information you need.

As drone technology becomes more mainstream, these different views, called outputs, are becoming intuitive parts of mining operations worldwide.

Tools in all major photogrammetry software allow you to measure and share important insights from the outputs. Here are the main ones:

Orthomosaics

Wingtra drones for mining orthomosaic output

Orthomosaic outputs offer a true-to-life look at a large area with the opportunity to zoom in to the level of resolution that your drone can capture. You can then use software tools to measure and analyze sub areas when planning and managing your mine site.

Point clouds

Wingtra drones for mining point cloud

Point cloud outputs are baseline datapoint renderings of an area and are especially useful for volumes because the points comprise horizontal and vertical spatial data. Other analytically-useful outputs are based on point cloud data.

Digital surface models

Wingtra digital surface model drone data output

Digital surface models provide a clear look and analytical data to assess the bare ground of any area. Featuring striking color contrasts to denote changes in bare Earth elevation, models serve as excellent tools to check topographical details when exploring potential mine sites as well as track changes in topography for restoration purposes.

Digital elevation models

wingtra drone elevation model output

Digital elevation models build on the DSMs to capture details of all items on top of the bare Earth, including vegetation, equipment and finer details of the actual site. All is still coded to indicate height differences. This output is ideal for tracking water and sediment flow with ease.

Contour maps

wingtra contour mapping drone data output

Contour mapping outputs offer a detailed look at the topography of an area according to changing grades in slopes. These can be paired with orthomosaics to offer a more analytical assessment of true-to-life terrain imagery, yet they are also powerful tools on their own.

What is the best mine drone?

The best place to start when answering the question of which mine drone is best is to get very clear about what you need them for.

For smaller checkups, a multirotor drone may work for surveying, but for larger areas—like whole pits and sites—you’ll definitely want a drone with fixed-wing capabilities.

That said, fixed-wings are vulnerable in how they take off and belly land, so the VTOL has emerged as a clear winner for mine sites since the technology has proved itself as reliable.

We’ve conducted several drone comparison studies and published reports that give a clear breakdown of the benefits and drawbacks to all of the leading multirotor, fixed-wing and VTOL systems.

Real-world performance comparisons

In the following quick-guide grid, you will see a simple breakdown of qualities that matter for the mining industry and its dynamic applications.

This is based on our drone comparison reports, customer interviews and US and EU government approvals based on rigorous testing and regulations adherence.

Visit the links above for detailed flight comparisons and technical information behind this quick guide.

Drones in mining case studies

Jellinbah Group oversees one of the largest coal mining operations in the world. They produce about 5 million tons of coking coal a year.

Learn how the right drone is helping them track and report site activity.

BNI Coal supplies about 4.5 million tons of lignite coal per year. Their dragline strips 40-60k yards (3-5 ha) a day.

This drone helps keep them on top of fast-paced surface mining operations.

Gold Fields Ghana Ltd. has moved beyond classical fixed-wing drones to achieve rapid, wide-coverage data collection across their open-pit mine concessions.

Discover which system gave them relief. 

Westmoreland Mining LLC. is a 150 year-old energy firm based in Pennsylvania. 

Read how surveyors are capturing millions of data points across stockpiles they couldn’t previously reach.

How to conduct reporting and auditing in mining with Propeller [Free webinar]

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Drones for mining FAQ

What are drones for mining?

Drones for mining are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that capture a lot of high-accuracy data fast across a mine site.

Mining drones are especially useful because they capture at a higher accuracy than all other methods—including terrestrial, manned airplane and satellite surveys—and are less expensive as well.

Add to all of this the safety they bring to a site via clear data and remote surveying.

What are the benefits of drones for mining?

Mining drones are used for surface mining operations, open-pit mining and underground mining.

Using drones for mining pays off especially for stockpile management, monitoring and inspection, and simplifying as many applications as possible amidst the complex nature of the mining industry.

Are mining drones worth it?

Considering that the alternative is weeks of terrestrial surveying with lower-quality data, yes.

A good aerial mapping platform will get you millions of data points in a fraction of the time and offers repeatable surveys and accurate records of your active site.

The cost must also be measured against the return.

To save a bit of money on a system may cost more over the long run, so make sure you consider all of the features and the needs of your organization.

What is LiDAR in mining?

LIDAR is a type of remote data capture involving laser points showering and bouncing off of a surface.

The LIDAR scanner reads the points that return to it in order to gauge distance, depths and shapes of surfaces.

While LIDAR can be useful in mines, the lack of vegetation means that photogrammetry will be more useful and cost effective.

How are drones used for mining restoration?

Through drone mapping your whole site before and often over the entire life of a mine, you automatically have a guide to planning and credible records for restoration auditing.

Overall, drones in mining are researched to provide “safe, accurate and fast” information that enables restoration of land to its original shape and use after mining.

Efficiency is key here since you need to produce information about the entire site across all applications and stages.

What is the best software for mining surveying?

Processing drone data can present hidden time and infrastructure costs. Generally, you will want a software that offers cloud-based processing and features that help you quickly and easily analyze the outputs.

You will also want a software platform that offers security level options for sharing with different stakeholders. Finally, software exists that streamlines your workflow even before you land the drone.

The key will be the compatibility level of your drone data. In other words, make sure the drone is software agnostic as well as optimized for the best post-processing and analytics experience out there.

How to conduct reporting and auditing in mining with Propeller

Reporting and auditing in mining with Propeller

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