Mining and the push to build a sustainable future are inextricably linked.
Producing renewable energy and rebuilding old infrastructure will require massive amounts of refined metal. Mining sites may be busier than ever in coming years trying to supply the raw materials necessary for wind turbines, battery arrays, solar panels, and countless other sustainable resources. But unless those sites can also lower their emissions and minimize their environmental impact, they’ll be simultaneously helping and hurting sustainability efforts.
Fortunately, sustainability in the mining industry is becoming a priority just as this new generation of technology is coming of age. Mining technology solutions can help operators hit targets for net-zero carbon emissions and prevent mining accidents from damaging nearby ecosystems. But what’s most exciting is how these same technologies can help mine sites become more efficient, productive, and safe.
For instance, consider the use of hydrogen-powered trucks and heavy equipment. They don’t require expensive gasoline or emit greenhouse gasses, so they significantly lower emissions and fuel costs at once.
In-situ leaching— an alternative extraction technique — is another example. It can turn excess heat produced during extraction into green energy at a cost that’s 2-4 times lower than conventional extraction methods. These mining technology solutions will improve sustainability and operations, but they need time to develop past the prototype stage.
Other technologies have reached maturity and are already in use at sites around the world. Drones, for example, give mine operators a top-down perspective of a site and feature countless applications for lowering emissions, improving sustainability, and enhancing production.
Sustainability is an urgent matter, and mine operators want to understand the solutions they have at their disposal to attack the challenge. Calls for companies to achieve net-zero carbon emissions are coming from regulators, investors, and consumers — and the mining industry has a lot of ground to make up.
The process needs to start now and stay consistent. And high-accuracy drones capable of capturing precise 3D data and imagery should be the centerpiece of the operation.
How Can Mining Be More Environmentally Friendly?
There are multiple steps mining operators can take to become more sustainable. Carbon offset credits allow operators to invest in carbon-reduction efforts like creating windmills or capturing methane gas from landfills to balance emissions from their mine sites. They can also invest in less wasteful water infrastructures and adopt more renewable water sources, such as desalination.
These efforts represent important pieces of progress, but they’re small steps forward. Conserving water and investing in carbon reduction won’t transform mine sites quickly enough or to the extent that sustainability requires. To reach those targets, operators will need to do a full-scale overhaul of their mining sites with sustainability in mind. That kind of transformation doesn’t come with changes in policies, priorities, or protocols; it’s only possible by using technology to upend expectations across the board.
Drones are in a unique position to catalyze this transformation because visibility has always been the greatest impediment to running a mine site effectively, safely, and sustainably. Decision makers need to track countless variables and metrics across an expansive environment that’s constantly changing. Traditionally, this meant sending surveyors into the field to perform slow and methodical work in a dangerous environment. The limitations of human surveying have a severe consequence in that mine operators often work with an outdated and incomplete understanding of mine conditions. Attempts to improve sustainability, safety, mine efficiencies, or anything else all suffer from a lack of visibility into a site’s day-to-day happenings.
Real-time kinematic (RTK) drones with high-resolution cameras can scan a mine site from above and produce reams of highly accurate data (within 5 centimeters) about everything happening within the site. Drones can capture many of the same readings as land-based traditional surveys, but they’re able to do it much faster, in greater volume, and in finer detail. The circumstances that limit traditional land-based surveying (e.g., dangerous conditions, inaccessible terrain, limited perspective, slow progress) are irrelevant for automated drones taking aerial scans. The ability to process the data through photogrammetry in 3D provides even deeper insights or computer vision that can be measured, analyzed, and shared with other team members.
Some of the methods operators already use to leverage the benefits of drones in mining include surveying stockpiles to estimate quantities of bulk materials and tracking how supplies change over time. Operators are also using drones to survey highwalls for the exact location of ore bodies and fault lines, then using those findings to map the most efficient and robust extraction plan.
Accident prevention is another critical application for highwall mining and tailings storage facilities (TSFs). Drones can monitor tailings dams and provide visual positioning data that reveals emerging structural issues. Operators can use drones and IoT sensors positioned on the dam to track conditions closely and address issues before they result in dam failure.
The visibility that drones enable improves everything from general surveying to haul road optimization. In other words, the benefits of high-accuracy, high-resolution drone-based data in mining aren’t limited to sustainability; they can also help mines become safer, more productive, more cost-effective, and more predictable. And thanks to high-accuracy drones data, sustainability in the mining industry proves to have a compelling business case.
Drones: Where Mining and Sustainable Development Intersect
With drones having so many applications on a mine site, it’s necessary to use technology focused on sustainability initiatives such as reduced emissions, waste, and pollution. Here are a few places to start:
- Create a Digital Twin: Using drone data to create a 3D “digital twin” of a mine site gives managers the all-encompassing perspective necessary to improve sustainability where it’s lacking. A 3D model also facilitates the rollout of autonomous vehicles that run more efficiently.
- Reduce Pit Interactions: Every venture into a mining site brings emissions and risks with it. Drones can capture data instead of sending technicians in trucks to do the same work. One company eliminated 12,000 pit interactions in a single year with this strategy.
- Monitor Tailings Dams: Keeping a close eye on any changes to the structure of a tailings dam can help make accidents more preventable. High-accuracy drone capture makes it easier and more affordable for mines to track small changes and mitigate problems that might otherwise go unnoticed.
- Track Highwall Conditions: Drones can reach parts of the highwall that surveyors cannot, providing a highly detailed look at conditions. Geologists and geotechnical engineers can use that data to locate ore, plan extraction, and monitor fault lines. This level of detail also gives them critical insight when identifying the safest way to extract without causing wall failures.
- Automate Surveying and Mapping: Surveying with drones costs 90% less than traditional surveys, and it eliminates much of the carbon footprint associated with traditional land-based surveying and mapping. In addition to these savings, drones can produce a broader and deeper survey.
After mine operators put some or all of these drone-based strategies in place, they will want to track environmental impact and determine whether they are meeting their goals for carbon-neutral operations.
We suggest you track metrics like the number of pit interactions or site accidents, which should both decrease once drone surveying starts. In terms of reducing emissions, estimate the emissions created by the average surveying trip and then multiply that amount by the number of trips drones eliminate. Concrete numbers like these show that the benefits of drones in mining are significant.
The Future of Drones, Mining, and Sustainable Development
As of 2019, more than a quarter of all mines had made considerable investments in drone technologies. Expect that number to skyrocket as operators become more aware of what drones can do, including considerations related to sustainability in the mining industry.
Improvements in drone technology will make adoption look even more compelling moving forward. As battery life extends, UAVs will be able to survey for longer or more frequently, increasing the amount of data that site managers receive. Improvements in camera technology and the integration of lidar sensors with reasonable costs will likewise enable a more detailed look at every portion of the mine. Finally, advancements in analytics will help mine operators turn that data into better insights with far less effort.
More than just a surveying or sustainability tool, RTK drones and the high-accuracy data they enable will one day be integral for all aspects of mine site management.
As a leader in drone data and automation solutions for the mining industry, Skycatch makes this technology accessible to all. Contact us to set up a consultation or to learn more.