Miners turn to drones to gather information

September 1, 2015

Technology is rapidly changing the way mining is done. From automated fleets of equipment to the use of drones, mining companies are increasingly looking to technology to find more efficient ways to conduct their business.

In Australia, Rio Tinto is on the leading edge of the use of technology. A report by The Sydney Morning Herald highlights some of the ways Rio Tinto is using technology, especially drones.

First it was driverless trucks and trains, now Australia's biggest mining companies are turning to drones.

Rio Tinto's technology and innovation executive Greg Lilleyman told the paper that his company had already started using drones to monitor and measure various aspects of its iron ore and coal businesses in Western Australia and Queensland respectively.

“Information will be the single biggest differentiating factor between the mining operations of the past and those in the future, and drones can produce a wealth of information to allow us to make better decisions,” he said.

When fitted with video or thermal imaging cameras, the drones can help companies to inspect machinery and other pieces of equipment much faster and cheaper than by using humans and helicopters.

“We’re already using drones to monitor our sites and inspect equipment, tasks that have traditionally presented safety risks for our people, taken up time and disrupted our operations," said Lilleyman

“Other innovative uses we are finding include tasks like monitoring remote turtle nesting sites and spraying weeds as part of our environmental programs.

“We see immense potential for drones to help extend the advantage Rio Tinto holds through the innovative use of technology, to improve the safety and productivity of our operations.”

Fortescue Metals Group is also getting in on the act. The company had a successful trial at the Cloudbreak iron ore mine last year, while BHP Billiton has also adopted them for stockpile measurement and other topographical surveys.

The Herald points out that it is not just the mining industry that is taking advantage of drones.

Japanese company Komatsu is combining drones with cloud computing to drastically reduce the time taken to survey and then build on construction sites, and the Australian boss of Mitsui, which owns 40 per cent of Komatsu, said earlier this year that he expected the technology to be highly adaptable.

"I predict that it could be applicable to the mining industry and deliver huge potential productivity gains."

But it’s not as simple as companies just buying a drone and immediately using it on their business. Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority requires drone operators to have an “operator's certificate,” and huge demand for such certificates has seen wait times blow out to as much as 10 months.

Lilleyman also warned that drones would only be as good as the humans behind them.

“Anyone can buy a drone and they’re easy to operate, but the trick is having the best minds working out what you do with them. We’re constantly thinking outside the box to imagine how they can be integrated into our mining operations to make complex tasks safer, quicker and cheaper as well as working with regulators to meet their requirements,” he said.



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