The impact of drone technology on the mining sector
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The popularity of drone technology across the mining industry has grown significantly in recent years. There are several examples where drones are currently being deployed across mine sites, making on-site activities a lot safer and more productive.
The use of drones for regular inspections of deep shafts has enhanced safety as underground mining activities are the most unsafe of all jobs on a site. Deep underground shafts are vulnerable to rock falls, humid conditions, and dust explosions, among other things. Drone technology is also being used for blasting and analysis.
With drones capable of collecting unlimited aerial data, engineers are now able to record and track more information in a shorter amount of time. Companies can effectively gauge stockpiles and tailings dam measurements, enabling quick decisions and enhancing productivity. Drones are also used in the maintenance of haulage roads by constantly monitoring haulage trucks, road conditions, and blockages.
The overall productivity and efficiency of mining companies have increased with the use of drone technology. For example, when Freeport utilized drones at its Democratic Republic of the Congo copper operations for surveying and mapping, it reduced the stripping ratio and therefore the amount of waste rock that had to be hauled before extraction, increasing overall productivity. Companies can benefit from drone implementation in surveying, mapping, and stockpile measurements. With drones, data can be captured and transmitted more easily, allowing surveyors and engineers to access it from any remote location, enabling them to spend more time on analysis and interpretation. For instance, Ferrexpo claims to have yielded 90% faster results after deploying drones for stockpile measurement, alongside other improved measures.
Across the mining industry, drones are demonstrating exceptional results by enabling much greater data collection, enhancing safety, and improving productivity.
Key recommendations for mining companies
Mining companies need to consider the following factors when planning to engage drones.
- Fix the bottlenecks. Bottlenecks can occur at any level of business activity. Mining companies should address long term bottlenecks that could severely damage productivity. For instance, stalls in production, excessive accumulation of stockpiles, machinery and equipment breakdown, and tailings dam failure.
Prompt determination of such bottlenecks could not just optimize production rates, but also avert excess expenditures. Utilizing drones for regular inspection, site and equipment monitoring, and stockpile measurements could aid mining companies in the timely identification of such blockages.
With drones in place, companies could remotely track operating activities, evaluate progress against timelines, and identify and resolve gaps in the process.
- Smart integration. Ensure a seamless and transparent integration while proactively addressing bigger business objectives. Drones can perform diversified functions, depending on the features and models available, which have to be screened based on companies’ key business objectives.
Furthermore, drones are fragile devices, and are vulnerable to failure and damage, particularly if mishandled. Therefore, companies should consider purchasing drone insurance for damage and liability before using on-site, particularly deep underground, and on complex terrain.
- Understand regulations and obtain proper licenses. Drones are aerial vehicles, applications of which are rapidly increasing across industries, forcing governments to formulate regulations. Thus, before using drones, mining companies must understand each country’s regulatory requirements for the commercial use of these vehicles.
Many countries have established guidelines and regulations for the use of drones for commercial purposes. Some of the crucial factors that fall under the purview of these standards include but are not limited to, night-time flying limits, regular inspections, and flying height boundaries.
- Considering renting drones, rather than buying. Renting drones may initially be more suitable if the use is for a limited time and there is scope to trial the product and gauge its real-time performance and return on investment.
- A comprehensive evaluation of requirements. There are several varieties of drones available in the market, with different functions and associated pros and cons. Companies must undertake a comprehensive analysis of the requirement, which may include scope and objective, functional and operational requirements, geotechnical difficulties, terrain challenges, and benefits and drawbacks of each type of drone.
Key recommendations for drone vendors
Vendors that provide drone-based solutions are advised to consider the following points when pitching/developing their products for mining companies.
- Target construction assets. We advise drone service providers to target mineral assets that are advancing towards or are currently under construction. Regular monitoring of development activities is a necessity for mine and field engineers, and progress tracking and reporting during mine design and construction is a critical and crucial step toward the effective advancement of the project.
In addition, drones should also enable the study of equipment, get status updates on materials, and mine structural development to examine the overall site accomplishment.
- Due diligence. Invest a lot of time in due diligence and proper evaluation of the industry, especially if you are planning to start a drone business. We advise companies to conduct business surveys to learn as much as possible about potential clients and their requirements. Get a thorough understanding of competitors’ services and the market’s current saturation levels.
- Awareness of challenges. The mining industry is vast and mining companies have to go through immense difficulties and face challenging situations to effectively perform daily activities. Most of these tasks are time consuming and often dangerous to perform for mine workers (for example, mine surveying and mapping, underground mine shaft examination, stockpile measurement, and backfilling survey, among others).
Having a clear understanding of the challenges faced by the mining industry and integrating it from a manufacturing and development point of view could aid in providing the right hardware and software services.
- Durability and strength. Mining is an immensely complex business. Mining activities normally continue 24/7 and the life of a deposit can last from a few years to decades. Thus, vendors must develop drones that could be deployed for longer hours and should be durable enough to last for several years.
Also, vendors must establish a strong support team and be prepared to fix any errors or malfunctions in the product as and when required. Availability of spare parts is critical given the isolated locations of mines.
- Industry understanding. Any sales and marketing strategy should focus on mining expertise in addition to technical capabilities. Vendors that do not have sufficient in-house mining knowledge could partner with mine engineers, consultants, and niche players that can add vertical-specific value.
Research by GlobalData into mine-site equipment buyers and decision-makers show that trials, demonstrations, and a good understanding of their needs are key considerations when choosing new equipment, with product quality a far higher consideration than cost.
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