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March 22, 2017

uav applications for the mining industry

Mining plays a large role in Canada’s economy but the mining industry now faces a severe downturn. Volatile commodity prices and regulatory burdens have made Canada inhospitable to new and major mining projects. Until stronger commodity prices return and better regulations regarding the review, approval, and permitting of mining operations are implemented mining associations are concentrating on improving current operations. The Mining Association of Canada has partnered with the Canadian Mining Innovation Council and started the Towards Zero Waste Mining initiative. The Towards Zero Waste initiative proposes many changes and introducing different technologies; of the proposed technologies put forth in this initiative unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are not mentioned. Despite many academics confirming the benefits of using UAVs for mine operations, mine closure, and reclamation activities the mining industry appears hesitant to adopt this technology.

According to researchers UAV photogrammetry “is capable for estimating the stockpile volume, monitoring the high wall slope stability, and mapping the underground mine subsidence” (Ge, Li, & Ng, 2016). UAV photogrammetry is done by taking photographs of an area using a UAV and stitching the images together in order to create a 3D model of the area. Making this 3D model accurate means the photos have to be georeferenced; this requires putting accurately positioned markers called ground control points throughout the area being modelled. Of course there are other means for modelling the surface of a mine. There are terrestrial laser scanners, satellite-based photogrammetry, manned aircraft photogrammetry, LiDAR from manned aircraft, total station surveys, and RTK GNSS surveys.

Considering the alternatives what advantage is there to using UAV photogrammetry? Most mines already have a terrestrial laser scanner which can generate 3D models and has the added benefit of being able to model both underground and open-pit mines. LiDAR or photogrammetry from a manned aircraft or satellite can achieve more coverage and are not subject to the same weather limitations as a UAV. Most UAVs run on batteries which means cold temperatures and precipitation can make flying impossible; also considering how small most UAVs are wind can also be an issue. Point-based methods such as total station or RTK GNSS surveys can be conducted regardless of weather conditions. UAVs also come with their own regulatory burden as UAV flights require approval from Transport Canada and a full set of safety procedures must be developed and approved beforehand.

Even with so many alternatives for the surveying and modelling of a mine UAVs still have many benefits that make them worth considering. With UAV technology gaining prominence a third party contractor could operate the UAV taking away the additional regulatory burden on mines. Point-based methods such as total station and RTK GNSS surveys are unsuitable for capturing complex terrain and take much more time than UAV photogrammetry. Manned aircraft aren’t able to fly as low as a UAV is and therefore a 3D model from a UAV is able to be much more detailed. Satellite data can require filtering to adjust for the atmosphere and getting high quality resolution imagery can be very expensive. Even with the drawbacks the main benefit of a UAV is that it has utility beyond surveying, and today there are many options for the types of sensors that can be attached to one. The full flexibility and utility of UAVs is always being investigated by academics, some examples include outfitting a UAV to observe tailing, multispectral sensors can be used to monitor the vegetation during the reclamation phase, and at the very least visual inspections for equipment and facilities. Any innovation that could help the mining industry when business improves is worth considering.

 

 

References

Ge, L., Li, X., & Ng, A. H. (2016). UAV for mining applications: a case study at an open-cut mine and a longwall mine in New South Wales, Australia. 2016 IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium (IGARSS). Doi:10.1109/igarss.2016.7730412