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News Article

UAVs Offer Great Potential for Exploration

Wed, 10/21/2015 - 17:11

Over the last few decades, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and drones have risen to prominence in the military sector, but their flexibility and efficiency also present significant advantages for mining. In their rise to commercial success, unmanned aircraft have already attracted the attention of key industry players, who are now reaping the rewards of this fledgling technology. Certain open-pit mines in the north and northwest of Mexico are regularly flying drones in order to maintain greater control over their ore extraction volumes, and to improve the accuracy of their financial viability estimates. UAVs can help gather useful geological information through geophysical and geomagnetic surveys. These techniques are used to determine the nature of the underlying rock structure based on the magnetic differences of the Earth. Geophysicists can then use that knowledge to determine where mineral deposits and precious metals are located. Explorative missions such as this previously required fixed-wing, manned aircraft to be flown at low altitudes and low air speeds, creating tricky conditions for pilots. In comparison, UAVs are capable of alleviating these risks as they only require an operator to fly them from a groundbased control center. Other benefits include increased flight time capabilities, reduced maintenance and staffing costs, low environmental impact, and fewer building requirements, making these pilotless aircraft a perfect fit for the mining industry. For UAVs to represent a worthwhile investment for mining companies, they need to possess the aforementioned traits, as well as have enough space to carry the information transmitting equipment. The category of UAV most suitable for exploration is known as Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE). These aircraft are capable of flying for around 15 hours, up to an altitude of 9,000m, and over a range of 200km. UAVs of this type are most often equipped with magnetometers for measuring the variations in ground-based magnetic fields. The data collected from such studies is then either stored on board, or sent directly to a ground control center, where it can be processed by geologists. Geometers and magnetometers are not the only mining exploration technologies used in UAVs. Long-wave and mid-wave infrared cameras can be fitted to the drones to produce high-quality imagery for topographic mapping. Additional cameras can also be used to take high resolution, time lapse pictures of a site, giving mine operators a clear view of any new or potential fractures in the rock faces. This kind of early detection is extremely useful for any company looking to increase safety and reduce risks on site.

One of the biggest benefits of unmanned aircraft is their relatively low cost. As a far cheaper alternative to traditional helicopters, drones are helping mining companies to acquire superior results for a fraction of the cost. These potential benefits spread widely across the value chain, from safety and security, to exploration, development, and productivity. However, even with such obvious benefits, there are still many barriers preventing drones from becoming routinely used in commercial flight missions. The lack of distinct regulatory standards in Mexico has formed a blockade which is halting the ability for UAVs to operate within civilian airspace. Even so, while the Mexican government has not officially condoned the use of UAVs, it has been authorizing their use at defined altitudes, short ranges, and away from densely populated centers. As an additional upside, mining exploration is often performed in remote locations away from restrictive airspace, which could potentially boost the usefulness of UAVs. Nevertheless, the country-wide adoption of unmanned aircraft will have to sit tight until the authorities can come to a safety consensus. These various complications have resulted in a lackadaisical adoption of UAVs in the Mexican mining industry. The main issue is a lack of recognized standards and protocols, not only within mining airspace, but across all industries that could benefit from the technology. The non-existent safety regulations, which are normally of the utmost importance in the aerospace industry, are resulting in some low-quality drones being produced. Additionally, UAV operators are often untrained in aerial navigation, presenting serious issues when you consider that manned, passenger aircraft are moving through the same airspace. Attempting to rectify this is the Civil Aviation Authority of Mexico, which is perhaps the closest thing to a UAV regulatory body in the country. The national mapping agency has also expressed a significant interest in this technology as it could advance its cartographic cause and knowledge. The support from both of these reputable bodies should help the necessary bureaucratic requirements to progress. Despite all these issues, UAV R&D is still growing globally at an exponential rate, while the variety and flexibility of models available on the market grows and their price points drop. While this seemingly disruptive technology is still in its early stages, drones will cause major changes in terms of productivity, cost, and efficiency in the near future. Once the first steps in regulatory definition have been taken, the mining industry is likely to experience a swarm of UAVs and drones dominating the skies.