Guardian angels: How drones make mining safer

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are shaking up mine sites across the country and abroad. More commonly known as drones, these devices have successfully carved a niche over the last few years in the mining world for their advanced mapping and inspection applications.

This includes tasks such as stockpile reports, drill and blast planning, compliance, regulatory reporting and inspection of roofs, silos and large fixed and mobile plant equipment.

These abilities undoubtedly result in cost benefits for miners who take advantage of the accuracy afforded by the drones’ measurements.

However, the ease of access drones have to unstable or potentially hazardous areas also brings with it a profusion of possible safety benefits.

“The primary safety benefit by using drones is to simply keep people away from hazards and dangerous working environments,” explains Andrew Chapman, NSW operations director at drone specialist Australian UAV (AUAV).

AUAV was founded in 2013 with the aim of becoming “the leading drone data service company in the country,” according to Chapman.

Now boasting offices across Australia, the company’s mining clientele includes the likes of Downer, Glencore and Rio Tinto. Chapman says using drones at mine sites delivers several safety benefits.

“It is no longer necessary to have people anywhere near danger if you only need to view, inspect or measure things,” Chapman continues.

“Obviously by removing the surveyor from walking through an active mine area we are not only reducing but entirely avoiding the possibility of them being harmed by mobile plant and machinery, drilling and explosives, dangerous chemicals, flyrock and other hazards.”

And since drones tend to be fairly compact and manoeuvrable, they are used not only in the free air of the open pit, but in tight underground environments as well.

Startup company Emesent, a drone-focused spin out of Data 61, the technology arm of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), specialises in drones for underground environments.

The company raised $3.5 million in November 2018 to commercialise its first product Hovermap, a LiDAR-equipped drone autonomy and mapping payload used for collecting data in dangerous underground environments, such as 3D scans of mine stopes.

Emesent chief executive officer and co-founder Stefan Hrabar says the technology dates back over 10 years to his time at CSIRO researching drone robotics and 3D LiDAR-based localisation and mapping.

“There are definitely elevated areas where you want to have a bird’s eye view,” he says.

“Then for underground there are areas where the unsupported ground might be unstable and you just don’t want to send people into those areas, so having a drone that can go in and capture data — whether it’s capturing images or generating LiDAR maps like we do — keeps people out of those areas.”

Hovermap provides a direct safety benefit by keeping miners out of dangerous locations, but it also provides indirect benefits.

Data collected by the system provide mining operations with an improved understanding of geological structures in the rock, including breaks or other weaknesses in the strata that could be identified as no-go areas.

This concept extends to areas where people have become trapped; as Hrabar explains, “sending in a drone for search and rescue is definitely a good usecase”.

Interestingly, drones that fly underground are not subject to the same aviation regulations as drones in the open air.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), the body that monitors flight safety in Australia, has yet to confirm to Emesent whether or not underground environments fall under its jurisdiction.

“There aren’t any specific CASA requirements for underground,” Hrabar says.

“There are obviously very strict regulations already in place for underground mining.  Mines have their own HSE policies that make sure people are kept away from dangerous machinery and that all of those policies apply when using a drone underground.”

The first company to receive beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) certification from an aviation body for a fully autonomous UAV was Israeli company Airobotics, which achieved this milestone from the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI) in 2017.

Airobotics’ UAV Optimus 1 distinguishes itself from rival drones by allowing for autonomous take-off and landing via a remote storage unit called Airbase, thereby eliminating remote pilots from the process entirely.

The company has received over $140 million in investor funding since June 2016. It opened its first Australian office in Perth in late 2017 and expanded to the United States in September 2018.

Airobotics believes that by eliminating pilots entirely from the equation, safety is improved as it removes human factors.

“Our system has a higher safety level than a manually operated drone concept,” explains Airobotics VP marketing Efrat Fenigson.

“A person flying a drone is not considered to be the safest thing in the world. And the reason I can say that with confidence is that we were certified by the CAAI based on that safety level.

“We were accredited by them to fly without a human pilot and they mentioned that we are safer than the normal concept of flying with a person; the safety level for the system itself is very high.”

AUAV also has similar ‘out-of-the-box’ drone technology in place, Chapman says, but due to current Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regulations a human is still required to oversee the drone’s activity.

“CASA is certainly trying, but they are a government agency with limited resources at their disposal,” he says. “The regulations are conservative and slow-moving in order to protect the manned aviation world — pilots, passengers and the people below — and so are years behind what could be safely done with the current technology.”

Like Airobotics, Chapman also thinks the lion’s share of drone work will be fully automated in future, which is why AUAV is focused more on getting the best possible data rather than fancy flying skills.

“All our mapping work and a large proportion of our inspection work is already fully automated in terms of the drone’s flight,” he says.

“Drones can fly themselves on mapping runs in a much more accurate manner than a human pilot ever could, and having them fly themselves also allows our crews to work on higher-level problems.”

These three companies are each contributing to the burgeoning UAV space in their own unique ways and helping to shape the potential future of the industry’s still nascent potential for safer mining.

Mining drones have come a long way in the past few years and the technology is becoming increasingly accessible and affordable for miners. As regulation evolves to meet the pace of the technology there is no doubt the mining industry will continue to see more of them in future.

This article also appears in the January to March edition of Safe To Work.