Navigating legal, logistical drone issues

By |  January 9, 2017

Drones have augmented the abilities of professionals in various industries, but nowhere have those impacts been seen or felt like they have in mining.

Engineers and operators in this space are using drones in conjunction with existing techniques and tools to create more powerful workflows that have made these operations safer and more efficient, and those changes are apparent everywhere you look.

Mining professionals have been able to utilize drones to examine and adjust their entire approach. Drone surveys are by and large replacing traditional ground surveys, or expensive methods like LIDAR (light detection and ranging) surveys. Surveying equipment that was used for volume calculations are now used to tie in the data collected from the drone. Companies can use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to perform visual inspections and answer questions on volumetrics and topography in order to help keep tabs on stockpiles.

These efforts allow operators to produce a scaled dataset that can be trusted when making calculations.

The bottom line is that UAVs have given operators access that was previously unheard of, along with the ability to collect more valuable data, all while reducing the time spent gathering that info. The time and effort around gathering such info is something Iain Allen knows all too well.

As senior manager of geographic information systems at Barrick Gold, Allen’s position involves monitoring new and innovative technologies relevant to spatial data collection, management and analysis. In this role, Allen has seen and experienced how drones are changing operations.

“The biggest change that UAVs have enabled is around stockpile volumes,” Allen says. “We used to use conventional surveying, but because it’s inherently unsafe to have people on the stockpiles, it was almost a best guess.

“With UAVs, we get 3-D models as often as we want and it’s faster, easier and safer,” he adds. “Using these tools allows us to get the best data we can without needing to worry about safety. We can do things with drones that we simply wouldn’t have done otherwise.”

Those additional abilities are important, but there are logistical and legal challenges associated with being able to realize such benefits. How will or won’t the people working a site treat UAVs if the push to see them utilized comes from the corporate level? Additionally, Federal Aviation Administration regulations in the United States have caused a number of organizations to pull back from their plans around drones – even as companies in places like Canada and France see the benefits in terms of their bottom line, as well as how they impact safety issues throughout a site.

How such logistical and legal issues are resolved and worked through will ultimately determine the sort of impact UAVs have throughout the mining industry.

Efficiency increases

Photos courtesy of Redbird

Photos courtesy of Redbird

Traditional surveying methods take days, sometimes even weeks, to complete. What had always been a long and laborious process is changing to fast, easy, accurate and safe data collection, and that’s all because of the advantages drones enable. Emmanuel de Maistre has seen how UAVs have helped to change the paradigm around data collection as the CEO of Redbird, an analytics company processing drone-acquired data, at scale.

“With drones, the approach is totally different,” de Maistre says. “Data is captured by a robot and can then be processed and extracted automatically with a cloud platform. As a result, the drone-acquired information can be made available to virtually anyone on the site. This kind of process creates the possibility for customers to better monitor their sites, improve their productivity and save costs.”

The amount of information operators can gather quickly and easily has completely changed assumptions and expectations that professionals have been working with for decades. That change directly impacts how costs are realized on a project, which is of critical importance.

For most mining companies, the main operating cost is fuel on account of the energy it takes to move such heavy equipment from one place to another, even when that space is relatively small. When the data captured from a drone is appropriately processed and analyzed, an organization can alter its onsite movements to ensure it is getting the lowest fuel consumption possible.

This increase in efficiency is impacted greatly by what makes sense for a particular company and the regulations under which they’re working, though. Whether an organization elects to outsource UAV operations, or do it all in-house, is almost as important as what country they’re flying in.

Sorting through such questions is something Peter LeCouffe regularly does. As the operations manager at Harrier Aerial Surveys, a licensed commercial UAV remote-sensing service provider, LeCouffe is very aware of the challenges many organizations struggle with when it comes to efficiency and regulation.

“When an organization is starting a UAV program, we have seen challenges in the effort required to conform to regulations, as well as technical difficulties with the learning curve associated with the new technology,” LeCouffe says. “Employees are used to using more rugged instruments and generally drones are much more fragile. This can end up costing the company a lot of money when starting out.

“When hiring a service provider, the companies are hiring experts that can handle these challenges,” LeCouffe adds. “The only issue left to the service provider after addressing the regulations and training is to convince the client of the benefits to their operation.”

The benefits in terms of efficiency are there for any mining operation to take advantage of, no matter its size, location or implementation strategy.

Enhancing safety

The differences in terms of regulation mean operating a drone can look very different in one country versus another. For instance, in the United States, operators are not allowed to fly beyond visual line-of-sight and they need to file for and receive a Section 333 exemption, which then requires a licensed pilot to operate the drone. Neither of these requirements exists for operators in France.

Such restrictions have invariably caused organizations to be leery of moving forward with a program that relies on or even utilizes drones, but doing so isn’t just about helping the bottom line. Drones can and are having a major impact on safety concerns and issues that have often caused serious problems on sites.

“In many cases, drones are getting to places previously not humanly possible,” LeCouffe says. “Additionally, when creating higher efficiency in existing operations through the use of drones, dangerous situations are avoided. For example, one stockpile we monitor for volume calculations takes eight hours to do manually. This exposes surveyors to unstable terrain and sharing the operating area with heavy machinery.

“With a drone, the flight takes 15 minutes,” LeCouffe says. “Not only are the surveyors removed from the dangerous areas, but the whole operation is completed in a fraction of the time.”

Regulations are around to keep everyone safe, and the task of doing so is by no means a small or trivial one. What makes the topic even more difficult is that distinctions around what it means to be “safe” can have different legal and practical definitions, which change from one country to another.

Nonetheless, the push to define these terms isn’t one that is solely going to be determined by government agencies, and the opportunity to utilize tools that can make mining operations inherently safer isn’t one that can be ignored or minimized.

“There are countless potential applications, but the initial use we had for a drone that’s designed to fly underground centered on sending a product like that to where we don’t want to send people,” Allen says. “It could be huge in underground mine rescues, where if something happens you don’t want to send people there, but you can send drones without putting more people in danger.”

Legal hurdles aren’t the only things that impact how drones can and are being utilized, but it’s important to remember that legitimate concerns about safety can also curb developments that would otherwise positively impact mining operations. Drones can and have made mining operations that much safer for everyone on a site.

Unique opportunities

Augmenting the way in which mining companies currently operate has obviously been an incredible development, but UAVs are about more than influencing and changing how these companies work today. Sensor developments have created new opportunities and increased expectations around what sort of info can be gathered and, in turn, how it can best be utilized. Once this info is analyzed and organized, mining professionals are finding they’re able to get an entirely new perspective around a site and their operation.

“Data captured by drones combined with dedicated analytics can easily measure and quantify information that was hard and time consuming to get before,” de Maistre says. “With all of these new datasets, people are really changing the way they monitor their site operations. The cloud allows a new collaborative and more efficient approach to the monitoring of the sites. Even if people are not experts with data and data processing, they can interact with one another and effectively collaborate thanks to a user-friendly cloud interface.”

More than anything else, drones have helped to open up more info to more people on a jobsite, and that’s encouraged operators and executives to redefine how things are done. If more people have access to more info, solutions that few have considered or thought through are going to be created and then enacted. Sensor developments are providing new and relevant info, and it’s info that can help detect leaks in pipelines or discover toxic gas leaks.

But examples like these are just a hint of the capabilities that could soon be available.

“For me, the most exciting thing about all of this is the new sensors,” Allen says. “Those are the infrared sensors, the thermal sensors and the hyper spectral sensors. They’re getting lighter, they’re getting smaller and they’re getting less expensive. That’s going to open up a whole new series of possibilities for us. When out-of-the-box thinking like this is displayed and encouraged, then it’s just about seeing what we can do.”

Once the various legal and logistical roadblocks are removed, mining and aggregate operations will be able to fully incorporate UAVs to see tremendous economic and safety benefits, but that will just be the beginning. After drones have been more fully integrated in mining operations, the industry will begin to see true innovation in terms of how these tools are being utilized and what they’ll be able to create and enable.

This includes things such as the establishment of mines in remote locations, instant delivery of spare parts and plenty more. Users always find the best and most relevant ways to utilize their tools, and once mining engineers and managers can do so with drones, we’ll see improvements that take the industry to another level.

Jeremiah Karpowicz is the executive editor for Commercial UAV News.

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