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By A.J. Roan
For Metal Tech News 

Drones set new heights for mining industry

Prospecting future beneath the ground comes from the skies Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – January 15, 2020


Last updated 6/27/2020 at 5:06am

Drones gold mineral exploration Yukon Territory Canada

GroundTruth Exploration Inc.

Allen Wywrot, geologist and drone operator for GroundTruth Exploration, launches a fixed wing craft to capture ultra-high-resolution imagery over mineral-rich lands in Canada's Yukon.

Companies have begun using drones in many industries around the world. One of the most interesting is the effectiveness of drones in the mining industry.

The economic benefits of drones are becoming more obvious as industry experts focus on specific problems drones may be able to solve. Drones have proven to be particularly well-suited for discovering new mineral deposits, as well as safely and efficiently tackling some of the tough tasks around operating mines.

These unmanned aircraft can be loaded with a combination of hardware and software to determine accurate measurements by way of photogrammetry, the science of gaining precise information about physical objects through imagery. Conventional surveys do not provide the "bird's-eye view" that you get from a drone, and satellites images do not match the accuracy gained from sensors flying just over the treetops.

"The true power of drone generated data is in the resolution," GroundTruth Exploration Operations Manager Isaac Fage told Metal Tech News. "Compared to typical satellite imagery at one-meter resolution, the drone produces a product at 20 times the detail – at five centimeters."

And a drone can gather as much data in hours as a professional team of surveyors could accumulate in days with traditional equipment.

Mapping is just one of the many applications a drone can be used in mineral exploration and other fields involved with material and construction sites.

Unmanned aerial surveys also eliminate hazards a ground-based survey team would face – operating machinery, unstable surfaces, leaching solutions and uneven terrain. A drone can provide uninterrupted on-site production and a superbly efficient method of accumulating data that is unrivaled, given the time and cost saved to garner such data.

What drones have created for the future of the mining industry could likely be called another kind of gold rush, perhaps even a drone rush.

Unmanned aircraft takes flight

The concept of an unmanned aerial vehicles is not a new one. The earliest recorded history of drones was seen in 1839, when Austrian soldiers attacked the city of Venice with balloons carrying explosives.

Pilotless vehicles were something that was further developed during the First World War. As the advantage in aerial warfare could hardly be overlooked.

So, what brought about the shift from military to commercial use?

Government agencies had found a potential for drones in disaster relief, border surveillance and wildfire fighting. While corporations began using drones to inspect pipelines and spray pesticides on farms.

So, in 2006 the Federal Aviation Administration issued a commercial drone permit. They issued an average of two of these permits a year for the next eight years – that was all that was requested.

Then, in 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the company was considering using drones as a delivery method, igniting the public's interest in drones.

In 2015, the FAA issued 1,000 drone permits, a number which more than tripled to 3,100 permits in 2016 and which has continued to grow in the time since.

Drone technology has grown into a dominating sector, with the commercial drone market hitting $14 billion in 2018 and a market forecast expecting triple that number by 2024, estimated at $43 billion.

Companies, markets and platforms around the world have begun to see the potential of drones, including some forward-thinking firms that recognized their vast potential in mineral exploration and mining.

GroundTruth Exploration drones

GroundTruth Exploration, an innovative company based in the heart of Yukon's Klondike Gold District, was amongst the first to realize the massive potential of drones when it comes to mineral exploration.

"The early addition of light fixed wing drone surveys to GroundTruth's exploration toolset gave us the capability to produce ultra-high-resolution imagery and DEMs (digital elevation models) at a fraction of the cost of manned fixed wing or satellite alternatives and gave us the product on demand, just days after the survey," said Fage, who has spearheaded GroundTruth's drone program. "Drone generated data has provided a strategic value add to the industry and been a game changer since day one."

The GroundTruth operations manager said the ability to capture high-resolution imagery quickly and efficiently is a game changer for the mineral exploration sector.

"In an exploration context, this changes the questions we can query from the imagery and topo," he said. "Each exploration project has unique questions that need answered and drone surveys GroundTruth have conducted have been used to problem solve in many ways."

And the innovative Dawson City-based company is adopting new drone payloads that will allow it to collect added problem-solving data.

"The GroundTruth Drone program is evolving in 2020 to add larger payload carrying drone capability to its fleet to offer multi-sensor options for mineral exploration. Specifically, drone base Lidar is the top objective for the upcoming season," said Fage.

Lidar, otherwise known as light detection and ranging, uses light from a pulsating laser to measure ranges and variable distances to the Earth. This comes in handy for a company wanting a detailed picture of the geology often hidden by flora.

"Lidar sensors are becoming practical to mount on drones and can image topography with a 'bare earth' topo model that filters out vegetation," said Fage. "This survey is groundbreaking and will make it practical to acquire quality lidar on many targets in remote areas of mineral exploration at low cost without the expense of mobilizing manned survey aircraft."

As the company's drone sector grows, so does its need for people able to pilot these unmanned aerial craft, as well as work on them and the payloads they are carrying.

"The main challenge GroundTruth has experienced with flying fixed wing drones in volume has been keeping on top of wear and tear when landing in rugged environments. To overcome the risk of downtime and non-completion of surveys, proper maintenance and operator training must be prioritized."

Mineral resources will continue to be necessary and more efficient methods to obtain them will as well be sought after. As GroundTruth continues to expand and as drone technology improves, we may very well be seeing the beginnings of an industry standard.

Terra Drone Mining

The wide array of mining applications drones can offer the mining sector is not lost on Terra Drone, a Japanese based company and the second largest drone provider in the world.

Terra Drone recently established a subsidiary in Canada under the banner of Terra Drone Mining. This is following an investment agreement between Terra Drone and Canada's Unmanned Aerial Services Inc.

This investment is enabling Terra Drone Mining to expand its business beyond North America to South/Central America, South Africa, Central Asia, Russia, and Australia.

The potential for efficiency, cost, growth and exploration has all increased with the use of drones. In a market as economically vital as mining, the possibilities for prospectors utilizing drone technology is hard to ignore. It can almost be said to be tailor made for just this kind of work.

Mine operators use drones to obtain 3D models of mines and prevent workers from entering hazardous locations. Terra Drone utilizes SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) to create highly detailed maps of underground mining areas.

Utilizing cutting edge 3D mapping of underground mines provides a unique perspective when in tandem with aerial imaging of the same location. The capacity to narrow down potential lodes and estimated mineral locations is possibly the most efficient means to maximize growth for any mining company.

Stockpile calculations, slope monitoring, site inspections – the mapping and imaging capabilities drones bring to the mining sector has only just begun to take off with advanced software and even hardware becoming more specialized to meet needs and expectations in faster and more efficient ways.

Ground penetrating radar (GPR) is also a very exciting prospect for future exploration as it provides the miner with a glimpse of what is beneath the ground before digging it up.

Underground drone generated mine map 3D

Terra Drone Mining

This complex of underground mine passages was scanned with a drone equipped with SLAM, a system Terra Drone developed to create highly detailed maps of underground mining areas that may be unsafe for human entry.

In addition to looking for buried lodes of minerals, drones equipped with GPR technology can be used in utility locates for cities, erosion damage, sinkholes or soft spots, maybe even buried treasure!

With the breadth of unmanned aerial vehicles that can be provided, Terra Drone appears to only just be getting started. Oil and gas, mining, electric utilities, geographic information system (GIS) and even unmanned traffic mapping are sectors utilizing Terra Drone technologies. The list will only continue to grow.

Drones are quickly becoming synonymous with technology as we begin to see them used in all facets of life. It is not hard to imagine that the uses so beneficial to mining and other commercial applications will find their way into public service, such as putting out fires and responding to medical emergencies.

Perhaps, someday soon we will have personal drones that follow us around everywhere we go!


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