Opportunities And Challenges For Drones In The Mining Sector

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The Centre has introduced ‘The Drone Rules, 2021’ to regulate the use and operation of drones in India. It is safe to say that drones are heralded to bring about major changes in modernising various sectors in the country. A glimpse of it can already be seen with how fast it has transformed agriculture in the country, which has inadvertently resulted in various new agri-tech companies coming up.

The mining sector is envisioned to increase the GDP contribution in India from 1.75% to 2.5% in the financial year 2022-23. However, one of the setbacks that the industry faces is its trepidation to adopt newer, faster technologies. Mining companies have realised how drones, as miniaturised flying machines, help the industry not only save time and money but also provide access to the inaccessible, besides having a lasting impact on safety and health regulations in the mining sector

While the use of drones in mining was at a validation stage till a few years ago, it has now crossed that stage and reached a point where we see an early adoption of drone technology throughout the lifecycle of a mine, starting from the exploration phase to the operations, right till the closure phase. “The tangible value that drones as a technology bring into mining has crossed the early adoption phase. We have reached the stage where we are now seeing a larger, quicker adoption of drones happening in mining,” notes Mrinal Pai, COO and Co-founder, Skylark Drones.

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The notable amendment made to the drone policy in 2021 stands as a testament to how the industries across the board have started to recognise the importance of drones as a technology. “I think that’s a recognition to what drones technology has been doing across multiple industries and we believe that mining in specific has a lot of value that can be uncovered using this technology,” Pai adds.

Immense opportunities

Drone technology is disrupting the way mining operations, data collection, and insight generation in mining are transformed. “I believe any technology that simplifies the operation of a mine, and makes the life of a geologist mining engineer safe, is here to stay to prosper, and drones are one such technology,” says Ajit Sahu, Chief of Exploration and Technology, Vedanta Ltd.

That being said, there is a long way the technology needs to travel, especially in terms of its impact on greenfield exploration. “While the easier ones have been discovered, the less easy ones are yet to be made. I would like to see some breakthrough happening in greenfield exploration use of drones, where the inaccessible become accessible for a geologist and the difficult terrains are traversed,” adds Sahu.

It is, therefore, crucial to understand where the mining process lacks behind and what the drone industry can particularly help them tackle.

Common issues faced in mines

Here are some areas where the drones can help:

Blasting. Measuring bench geometry before and after the blasting process is an essential part of any mining exercise. The traditional method of using total stations is slow, cumbersome and puts personnel in mortal danger. (A total station is used to record the absolute location of the tunnel walls, ceilings (backs), and floors as the drifts of an underground mine are driven.) There is no way to verify if drill holes for explosives are positioned as planned. Drones can help by reducing cost and time overruns due to improper management of men, material, and safety surveillance.

Drones aiding in magnetic surveys
The process of mineral discovery and block development in mining is a long and winding process. Surveying is the first phase of the discovery process. This includes geological mapping, physical mapping, and geochemical mapping. All these datasets narrow down the area from there, so that a 10,000-15,000sq km of metallic deposit site can be condensed to 100sq km. As this process continues, the deposit area is further narrowed down to a 1x1sq km of mineral deposit.

This, as per Dr D.S. Jeere, Director of Geology at GSI, is where drones can come in handy. He says, “I find that there is a very big role for drones to play here because what we need in this 1sq km is a 1×4000 scale data graphic mapping.”

A high-resolution magnetic survey is another area where drones, especially with their small sensors, can play a major role in the mine development process. But the quality of sensors plays a major role in how the end data comes out.

Sahu says, “We did a drone-aided magnetic survey recently and found that it is good in terms of well-located data. It could be done in a small time period; whatever objectives were set were met. But I also know that the quality of data was not great. It could be because of the sensor. In terms of the survey, one of the problems that we had in our mind was that we may struggle to find well-located data. But that was not the case—it turned out to be good.”


Output.
Miners have historically made rough assumptions as to the volume of outputs generated, which leads to underreported numbers. Any mistake at the bottom of the funnel leads to resource mismanagement at a macro operational level. A drone can measure critical volumes 2-3 times faster from source to stockpile in near real-time. It can monitor volumes of pits, overburden, dumps, stockpiles, and other critical volumes across the mine 2-3 times faster.

Transport. The design of haul roads and systems using satellite imagery is inefficient as the data is outdated and inaccurate to the extent of several metres. Improperly designed transport routes lead to loss in output production and operating revenues. Drones being highly-accurate, can reduce automated post-processing errors to the minimum. Stockpile volumes can be estimated with an accuracy of 99%.

The challenge of integrating software and hardware

The introduction of drones in mining industry has yielded path-breaking results even in the short amount of time that they have been around. However, as is the case with any nascent technology, there are certain voids that drones are yet to fill. “To my mind, it’s not the drones which is the most important thing but how we use the software,” remarks Piyush Srivastava, Chief of Natural Resources at Tata Steel.

Drones so far have only aided in the collection and capture of data. Even though drones are capable of carrying both the laser cameras as well as multispectral cameras, operators are yet to learn the integration of software with the data set that they receive from drones to turn them into usable data.

One of the biggest challenges that photogrammetry cloud data collection poses is the trouble of dealing with its sheer size. As per Srivastava, the size of the data for scanning up to five square kilometres of land can reach up to 60GB. Software that the industry currently uses widely is yet to catch up with the demands of such heavy data. “Now to process the data for when there are images from multiple file paths and then you do cognition and then aero-triangulation, the speed is a limiting factor. Sometimes it takes a few days to process the data,” notes Srivastava.

One of the possible solutions to deal with this could be the adoption of a hub-and-spoke model, where everything is centralised within one hub and multiple tall stations can work in tandem in order to be able to process the data.

Transferring this data is another cumbersome task. Most drones come with a chip that is not allowed by secured systems, which makes the data transfer a big hassle. And let’s not get started on the condition of 4G connectivity prevalent in the country.

Srivastava suggests opting for a cloud space where they can install and use software like ArcGIS. This helps in centralisation of the data without the need to transfer it from one system to another. Output can be monitored, and the 3D mine models can be viewed in real time. But then again, licensing for such software creates a hurdle, as everyone involved in approving a mine survey is always required to be in possession of it.

Srivastava points out, “There are few people who need to create, but there are many people who need to monitor; the GM of the area might like to see the mine. How does it look? He may like to see the land-use plans, but he may not have the software.”

This is where the open source community can come to the rescue, as they create a middleware where the viewership can be done irrespective of whether one has that software or not.

Similarly, integration between the mining software and the point cloud data is also required. This would allow the point cloud data to be used on a software and allow the geologist to update their model from the real-time data, thus enabling a faster upgradation of models.

The other way is to make the model using a UTM bridge network where one can directly import the data into a common framework that is used by everyone. This makes monitoring easier for the regulatory bodies and even for the mining bodies. It also becomes easier to integrate the mining software into the mine planning software, mine training software, and drones photogrammetry software.

Pai adds that emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning can also help accelerate how well-versed the hardware gets at solving major issues. He says, “While I don’t think it completely eliminates the manual processes, because a surveyor on-site knows his mine better than anyone else, since drones capture visual 3-dimensional data, I think there is a tremendous scope of machine learning to automate a bunch of things.”

It all starts with skill development

While drone deployment in the mining industry has its share of hardware- and software-related challenges, a major obstacle that precedes them all is the lack of skillset related to drone technology amongst regulators and operators. It is especially prominent among surveyors, according to Srivastava.

Though it requires no qualification and limited knowledge of GIS software, drone operation is a skill that the industry is desperately looking for. Naturally, like it is with any nascent technology, it is much easier to get hold of young surveyors, but they still lack the eye that a veteran surveyor who has been in the field for a much longer period has. Training these surveyors is a win-win for the industry.

In the case of regulators, georeferencing becomes critically important. Learning the necessary software to analyse the drone data is necessary; an error in approval of land-use plans can have serious results.

Srivastava proposes the use of an open source SaaS model. These technologies cannot be used through local servers and laptops, and everything has to reside in the cloud. On the cloud, the licenses that are required will be different than the desktop licenses, and integration of mining software and the photogrammetry software requires more work to be done.

What the future looks like

Recent developments in the drone industry in India have brought about a huge opportunity for simplifying the mining process. The vision is in place, though the execution is still slow.

Sahu says, “I would like to see drones being used on a daily basis from surveillance to utilisation and monitoring of logistics, where there is enough room. The technology needs to be developed and taken to a level where continuous work is done and another tech can come in to make it robust.”

He adds, “I would like to see where discoveries are being made using drones, because i strongly believe that is one area where it can play a vital role, and new mineral discoveries can be made using drones sensibly and wisely.” Exploration through drones has definitely picked up the pace, but it is yet to reach the stage where the benefits can outweigh the benefits of other traditional exploration means.

Drone solutions providers need to address the issues quickly. While the golden period of drones use has just begun in the country, this is the perfect time for their use in a sector that is expected to grow at an unprecedented pace. With good research and collaboration, the scope of drone solution providers being able to provide scalable solutions that the mining sector desperately needs increases manifold, thus increasing the possibility of progress in the future.


This article, transcribed and curated by EFY’s Siddha Dhar, is based on the panel discussion on ‘Drones In Mining’ that was hosted recently by ASSOCHAM.

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