Photography drones that are commercially available can do a variety of tasks. From video shoots in 4k resolution to stable photography. Some of these drones come with military-grade cameras which are effective in surveillance, monitoring and mapping of an area. These drones are slightly different as compared to the standard photography drone and are mostly meant for usage in the mining industry. They can perform tasks like collect timely, georeferenced imagery that is quickly transformed into a precise 3D copy of mining site, quarry or pit. This information can further be used to calculate volumes, perform site surveys, optimize traffic management, design road layouts and much more. Such tasks if performed manually would take several days and unfathomable effort whereas with the help of an autonomous UAV it can be done in a matter of minutes. Alternatively, surveying of this sort was done using smaller aircraft which amounted to a hefty price tag and came with its own risks and limitations and feats like surveying underground mines were next to impossible for a piloted aircraft.

Underground Mapping using drones

UAVs are shaping the way the mining industry works. Mining drones can survey and clear a particular site of people before a blast is commenced, it can track fumes after the blast, it can create a 3D map of an excavation site using its highly advanced mapping software which will further enable a person to plan the excavation and map the progress in real-time.

A surveillance footage and topographical data of a mine captured by a drone

A company named BHP Billiton has already been conducting trials for the past three years by using drones in mining. BHP Billiton is a world leader in the production of iron ore, metallurgical coal and copper. The company operates predominantly in the Americas and Australia, with a workforce of more than 60,000.

Billiton revealed how they used drones in the mining industry. They used their drones to improve road safety on sites, by monitoring traffic, road conditions and hazards. At their Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, their maintenance team used drones to help inspect overhead cranes, towers and roofs of tall buildings to avoid working at height.Their mineral surveillance drones help them build 3D maps of their mining sites which also helps to identify minerals for potential extraction by looking at mineral patterns. Billiton also admitted to saving an estimate of $5 M per year in their Queensland mining site just by the use of mineral survey drones.

3D mapping of mines can reduce up to 5 times the cost of surveying, provide accurate geospatial data and give an in-depth topographical data. Apart from mapping and surveying, the mining drones also help in inventory tracking at the sites. Manual inventory checks are time-consuming and lack efficiency whereas UAVs can provide an inventory check any minute with precision. 3D mapping via UAVs further help in blast planning. It enables geologists to optimize blast designs and accurately control and document differences in grade across the site. A drone’s 3D outputs can hugely benefit water management in mines, pits, etc. by measuring and assessing watersheds and drainage basins, or mapping the potential flow of water based on the site’s current topography.

Blast planning using 3D outputs from drones

Several companies like the Billiton are already using UAVs and there are many which offer commercial 3D mapping and surveying for affordable prices. With the ease and advancement of technology, mining solutions are becoming cheaper and accessible to almost everyone. Such UAVs could potentially save hours on end and millions of dollars. 

Watch how the mining giant BHP Billiton uses drone technology in mining: