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Mining companies are turning to drones to monitor difficult to reach areas, allowing for decreased interaction with hazardous activity. Safe to Work writes.
Mine sites are often located in remote areas with machinery and equipment that is controlled by operators that can be thousands of kilometres away.
In contrast, it is still common for operators to be working onsite despite the need to access hard to reach spaces – making the potential for hazardous activity even higher.
Should something go wrong, it is difficult to communicate issues and then receive assistance that is often urgent.
Recognising these issues, some of the world’s biggest mining companies are increasingly turning to remote controlled drones to inspect and monitor operations.
A drone’s versatility is allowing the major’s to carry out a plethora of activities that humans cannot, while maintaining the required level of safety.
This includes accessing isolated areas to monitor equipment and operators, as well as providing image data that can be used to observe the health of assets at mine sites.
For Rio Tinto, the introduction of drones at its Kennecott mine operation in Utah has enhanced safety through high wall mapping and rock fall analysis.
The technology is allowing the company to see things that used to be inaccessible, using thermal diagnostic capabilities to identify equipment problems to recognise hazards before they turn into injuries.
One specific example of this is identifying high friction rates on equipment in real time, allowing Rio Tinto staff to notify maintenance teams so issues can be addressed.
Similarly, South32 has deployed drones at its Worsley Alumina operation in Western Australia, removing humans from dangerous jobs such as working in confined spaces and at heights.
The company has gone as far as introducing a dedicated team to the operation of drones, camera systems and other robotics around the site.
Equipped with high definition cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are also becoming increasingly important for equipment supplier Beumer Group, which provides bulk material conveyors, elevators and loading equipment to a range of mine sites.
Beumer project engineer overland conveyor Eugen Doberstein says the company has been working with drone technology for about three years, including in the mining industry.
He believes that drones they have now become almost “standard equipment” that is used for measuring sites or operating and maintaining facilities.
“One of the main reasons for the increased use are the higher standards in occupational safety: only a few people are on site and could be exposed to possible hazard,” Doberstein says.
“In general, the use of these aerial vehicles is becoming more and more important for many companies in very different industries.”
Indeed, major miner BHP has been a leading exponent of drones to make its operations safer in both mining and petroleum.
BHP has used drones at coal mines in Queensland to ensure areas are clear before a blast takes place and to track fumes post blast.
Drones are also used to improve road safety at BHP’s sites by monitoring traffic, road conditions and hazards.
In addition to their safety benefits, BHP has used drones fitted with military-grade cameras to provide real-time footage and 3D maps of sites.
Capturing data from drones is also being capitalised on by Alcoa, which has introduced the practice across its Western Australian operations.
It has allowed for more accurate maintenance planning, exact scaffolding requirements and are widely accessible on iPads across the site.
The use of drones on mine sites extends to providing up-to-date data that can detect whether a new building has been erected or traffic routes have shifted within a mine, giving operators current information on areas that can be accessed safely.
Perhaps the most important safety factor, however, relates to actually removing personnel from dangerous zones in mine sites.
“We benefit significantly from less effort and thus manpower amongst other things and this is also reflected in costs,” Beumer manager of plant design, bulk materials handling systems Lukas Paul says.
The lack of human contact on mine sites is provided by a drone’s ability to have a route planned for them through computer systems.
By using appropriate software, staff can calculate the exact flight path giving the drone direction to fly in its pre-determined route.
They can also be controlled through smartphones or tablets, naturally meaning less people on mine sites and therefore, a reduced susceptibility to injury.
Drone technology itself has developed rapidly over the past few years and they are now smaller and have improved quality, according to Doberstein.
“The cameras being used are becoming more compact and are delivering increasingly high-quality images,” Doberstein explains.
“The stabilisation systems have been improved too, the aerial vehicles are now able to connect to certain satellites and thus access GPS data to maintain their position- even strong gusts of wind can no longer drive them away.”
The types of drones being used are also diverse and a particular interest within the mining/quarry industry is copters.
Their similarity to helicopters allows copters to stand still in the air thanks to their rotors. They are particularly suitable for narrow take-off and landing areas or when they have to perform at low speed.
“Users can control them manually and they mainly fly over medium-sized and small building sites. In addition, they are used for quarry faces in quarries,” Doberstein says.
“Due to the fact that we only need to measure one corridor for a belt conveyor, we use a copter for our projects. If the route is over several kilometres, we divide it into several segments, as the drone is only able to fly over the route in sections due to its limited flight time.”
Beumer head of conveying and loading systems sector Andreas Echelmeyer says the use of drones are “already part of our everyday work routine.”
This trend only seems to be growing in popularity as technology enhances the ability of drones and mining companies become more creative in ways to keep staff safe onsite.
this article also appears in the October–December edition of Safe to Work.