A Welcome Disruption – How drones are changing the way we explore and extract resources

11 - drone_field1 copyDrones are becoming routine exploration and mining tools, from early reconnaissance and target delineation through to mine site monitoring and land reclamation. They are a truly disruptive innovation for the resource industry, combining big data, automation and battery technology to create new business models, suppliers, and services.

Over the past decade, drones have become smaller, lighter, and faster than ever. Also known as unmanned aircraft system (UAS), unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), a drone is a small aircraft with no pilot onboard, operated remotely by a person on the ground below or autonomously from further away.

All industries are now employing drones, from agriculture and forestry, to emergency response and law enforcement, and of course photography and entertainment. Already the resource industry are using them for land surveying, target delineation, geophysical surveys, mine site and ore transport monitoring, and environmental observations.

Early days

In the Yukon, Shawn Ryan, a successful explorer whose name is synonymous with discovery, has been using drones in grassroots exploration since 2012. As one of the first in Canada to operate drones commercially, Ryan and the team at Ground Truth Exploration have now flown over 700 drone surveys.

“We use the drones to get the lay of the land, but there’s more to just seeing what the ground looks like. There are lots of applications,” says Ryan, explaining they use drone imagery for checking land access, mapping and sampling, placing drills and camps, quantifying the environmental footprint of a project, and to create imagery for project marketing, promotion and fundraising.

Junior companies use drones for quick, high-resolution aerial surveys of their properties. Quebec exploration company, Adventure Gold, announced a UAV survey of their Val-d’Or East project in June 2015. The drone acquired an accurate 3D-like terrain model and high-quality aerial orthophoto data. They processed the data to create 3D maps and integrated it with the company’s geological and block models for more accurate target delineation.

Faster, cheaper geophysics

Drones are being developed and modified to carry geophysical acquisition equipment too. Since Fugro introduced their GeoRanger UAV in 2004, drones have become smaller and faster, and the geophysical equipment they carry lighter, combining to make geophysics by drone more accessible.

In May 2015, Abitibi Geophysics and GEM Systems announced their new drone magnetic survey system and were overwhelmed by the high level of interest and requests for quotes. Their AeroVision system is a UAV carrying magnetometers for quick, low cost, low altitude magnetic surveys, but with similar resolution to a ground magnetic survey.

“Drones are basically a way of carrying your instrumentation around quickly and more efficiently than doing it on the ground, and in some cases at a lower cost and lower overhead than with helicopters and aeroplanes,” explains Daniel Card, principal geophysicist of applications and research at Abitibi Geophysics.

Rather than replacing aeromagnetic surveys, which are usually cheaper per line kilometre using helicopter or aeroplane, drone magnetic surveys will replace labour-intensive ground surveys. With fewer people needed on-site and no lines to cut through the bush, magnetic drone surveys are cheaper and quicker with a much smaller environmental footprint and less community disruption.

“If you have a small survey of a few hundred kilometres, say a three to five day job, you don’t really want to pay the tens of thousands of dollars to get an aircraft onto your site, house an aircraft engineer and a pilot and crew,” says Card.

Research into applying drone technology to other types of geophysical surveys is underway; the weight of the payload may be the only limitation. In theory, any geophysical survey system could be adapted to drones, for example spectrometer for radiometrics, or an EM sensor.

“There’s a lot of research going into airborne IP right now, which requires the aircraft to fly in sync at a fixed distance from each other, which might be easier by automated aircraft where the flight paths are defined digitally, rather than trying to sync up two pilots operating together,” says Card.

Eye in the sky

Producers are using drones for a range of purposes too. Rio Tinto, for example, are using drones in Australia to inspect the powerlines which run for hundreds of kilometres, reducing the need for helicopters to fly, or workers to drive, long distances across the desert.

Rio Tinto are also employing drones at mine sites for geotechnical monitoring of open pit walls and stockpiles. In 2014, German drone manufacturer Aibotix, together with CADS Survey and import company C.R. Kennedy and Co., announced the results of a drone survey at Rio Tinto’s giant Argyle Diamond Mine in Western Australia.

Equipped with a high-resolution digital camera, the team used an UAV to generate an orthophoto, a point cloud and a 3D model, all with a ground sample distance of two to six centimetres.

Sam van Eldik, survey division manager for civil and aerial at CADS Survey, was impressed by the accuracy of the generated data. “Using the Aibot X6, we are able to generate data of the open pit mine with an accuracy which would not have been reached with a common airplane,” he said in the September 2014 release.

Time for take off

As drone technology evolves, the industry is thinking of beneficial ways to use drones to add value to resource projects. With the downturn driving innovation across the industry, now is the perfect time to test drone technology.

As Card ironically states, “It’s literally just getting off the ground.”

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