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6 Ways Aerial Drone Data Can Help Improve Mining Safety

By Didi Horn
Published: July 23, 2020
Key Takeaways

Using drones to perform inspections can save labor power and reduce the need for maintenance staff working at hazardous heights.

Caption: Aerial view of a mining operation Source: geogif / iStock

Maintaining safety standards across the enormity of a mine is no easy feat. While fatal incidents have been on a gradual downward trend for the past two decades, statistics from NIOSH show persistent risks to worker safety. In 2018, approximately 63% of incidents involved mining equipment, such as powered haulage (48.15%) and heavy machinery (14.8%). Meanwhile, the mine itself can also pose a major risk, with falls of ground or loose material accounting for a further 15% of fatalities that same year.

Mines are vast. Mines are remote. Due to the extractive nature of the work, the site itself is constantly changing. How can you keep an eye on key areas of your mine, identify developing issues, and address them before they manifest as accidents?

(Learn more in Safety KPIs for the Mining Industry.)

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This may not come as a surprise, but Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, are a fantastic tool to survey and inspect your mines on a routine basis. When situated into enterprise software platforms for analysis, high-resolution UAV imagery can be quickly processed into Digital Terrain Models (DTMs) that allow for close inspection of your mine in a 3D space. To expedite analysis entirely, AI-driven computer vision systems are already in use today to identify anomalies and track important changes from inspection to inspection.

Here are the six ways that such an aerial data workflow can help you improve mine safety for its entire lifecycle of operation.

1. Shift from Reactive to Proactive Maintenance

Today, aerial systems possess the fully-autonomous capabilities you need to routinely inspect your site with little manual effort.

As critical points of data are flagged - an unstable mine face, a missing safety berm, or damage to equipment - the software platform can use them to inform predictive modeling around safety in your mine. This allows you to see areas of inefficiency where certain issues repeatedly occur or forecast how detected ground changes may lead to an infrastructure hazard.

The ability to prevent an accident before it occurs is the greatest advantage an aerial data workflow stands to offer you.

2. Monitor the Integrity of the Mine Itself

As a worksite carved and constituted from the very earth, the physical structure of a mine requires careful observation for structural integrity issues. From a thorough grid survey with a UAV, a three-dimensional DTM allows for precise measurements of the ground surface and elevation.

With these measurements, you can ensure that key areas of the site are up to standard:

  • Measure break lines to see if they’re even and whether any bank failures are imminent
  • Assess the height between bench/dump areas and establish whether there is suitable workspace for the tasks at hand
  • Analyze the slope and contours of walls to ensure structural integrity

3. Improve Management of Tailings Dams and Ponds

A compromise in a tailings dam can cause catastrophic damage to both the environment and human life. In a review of global tailing dam surveys over the course of 2019, the Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative found that 10% of these dams had a history of structural instability. Again, with an accurate model of the ground surface, you can identify potential issues with your dam – such as erosion, breaks or active leaks, and even significant loss in pond depth due to underground seepage.

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With the right equipment, a UAV can even take on the task of tailing sampling, eliminating both the risk of sending staff out onto the pond and the high costs of such an operation.

4. Ensure Infrastructure Complies with Design Guidelines

To keep trucks moving smoothly and safely, haul roads need to be kept within optimal design guidelines. An ideal road width for your trucks, road grade that complies with brake/stop limits, and a road layout conducive to safe driving – a DTM can help monitor for compliance with all of these criteria.

Aside from the road itself, you can also use the same aerial data to identify any sections that are lacking necessary safety berms and drainage ditches.

5. Limit Maintenance Staff Having to Work at Heights

Mines are home to structures and massive pieces of machinery that require maintenance staff to work at great heights during inspection. UAVs are available in highly-maneuverable vehicle classes – such as a multi-rotor – that can perform meticulous multi-point inspections of these assets.

This is also an area where AI can help expedite the analysis process, quickly scanning imagery from each inspection for structural damage, missing components, or severe corrosion. With a high-endurance UAV, these inspections could take place in the same flight as an all-encompassing grid survey of your site.

Aerial data gives your maintenance teams a crystal-clear picture of where to focus their efforts, while limiting the need to work at heights for only the most critical maintenance tasks.

(Find out How to Put Together a Safety Program for Working at Heights.)

6. Enjoy a Real-Time Aerial View of the Complete Blasting Process

Many of these examples highlight how to use processed data post-inspection to improve safety, but blasting is a scenario where the UAV can play a valuable role in the midst of a live operation.

Throughout the blasting process, you can use a real-time feed from the UAV to ensure everything meets safety standards. Examine blast-hole drillings to make sure they match the outlined plan and use an eye-in-the-sky to ensure the area is all-clear before detonation.

Once the blast is complete, the UAV can continue to monitor the area to determine when it's safe to return to work and whether any local stakeholders need to be warned of drifting fumes.

The Power of a Bird’s-Eye-View

The reality is that UAVs are simply a means to an end within the context of data. Through platforms that can process the thousands of high-resolution images generated by UAV sensors, you will be able to access the resulting data quicker and easier. With 3D elevation models, AI-driven visual analysis, and predictive modeling, you can get a holistic view of your mine and pinpoint the safety issues that dictate immediate action - before they’ve even occurred.

(Learn How Predictive Analytics Is Changing the Game for Safety Reporting Best Practices.)

While it may seem appealing to set up UAV operations in-house, cost and complexity can quickly spiral out of control. Purchasing the right aerial systems, maintaining a fleet, pilot training, mission planning, data processing, and analysis - all of these factors quickly add up. Outsourcing these efforts eliminates the need for massive upfront investments, allowing you to pay per UAV use or even better, simply purchase the data you desire.

With high-quality UAV data, you can mitigate today's major risks to mining safety, drive your incident numbers down over time, and ultimately achieve your zero-incident goal.

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Written by Didi Horn | Founder & CEO

Profile Picture of Didi Horn

Serving with the Air Force for nearly a decade, as both a captain and drone pilot, Didi's work in drone operations would give him profound insight into the capabilities of these unmanned systems. In 2015, Didi founded SkyX, with the vision of helping our energy and resource industries leverage this technology to revolutionize the management of assets and operations of vast geospatial scale.

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