Using drones for drilling and blasting

By |  July 28, 2017

It is, at its core, a simple question: How do you make explosions better?

For the likes of filmmaker Michael Bay, the answer is also simple: Make them bigger and louder. For the mining industry, making a better blast is a little more complex because it involves lowering operating costs, improving efficiency and maximizing output, but there is a solution hovering on the horizon: an automated drone.

The innovation set to rock the mining industry isn’t an explosive-dropping drone. Yet with drilling, blasting and exacting of ore accounting for between 30 and 40 percent of operational costs at an open pit mine, mining professionals will be excused if they find the idea of refining the drilling and blasting process using an automated unmanned aerial vehicle just as awesome as the biggest, loudest explosion in a summer blockbuster.

Automation excitation


Research shows automation has increased the productivity of mine sites by upwards of 25 percent. Photo:

As with many industries, automation on the whole is already having a significant impact on mining. Ran Krauss, CEO of Airobotics, a manufacturer of automated drones for mining and other industrial applications, points to research that generally shows how automation has increased the productivity of mine sites by upwards of 25 percent, and that an automated drone’s ability to collect aerial data at a mine site is a game changer.

Drone applications in mining range from surveying and stockpile volume measurements to security and emergency response, but it is perhaps the drilling and blasting-related missions that can have the biggest impact on a mine site’s operations, especially if performed by an automated drone.

As explosive tacticians of all types can attest – including mining engineers – some of the most important aspects of blasting come well before a single explosive is ever detonated. The immense amount of data that can be collected by a drone before the blasting process at a mine site is essential from both a safety and profitability standpoint.

With live streaming video, a drone allows for a thorough and efficient visual assessment of the blast site that helps ensure all equipment and – more importantly – all personnel are a safe distance from the site.

According to the Department of Labor, 10 fatalities have occurred at mining sites in the United States in the first five months of 2017. And, with explosives ranking as a key source of mining accidents over the last several years, the importance of blast site security cannot be overstated.

With blast site safety and security taken care of, attention can be turned to increasing the quality of the blast. As experienced mine operators know, a good blast starts with accurate drilling, and a major component of accurate drilling is drill hole alignment.

Drones aid with drill hole alignment by comparing a georeferenced image of drill hole positions with the positions laid out in the blast plan. The precise drilling produced thanks to the data from a drone helps to achieve the sought-after rock fragmentation size and can save on loading and crushing costs while reducing equipment wear and tear, as well as minimizing productivity losses.

Another important aspect of the pre-detonation blasting process is the pre-blast digital elevation model (DEM), which provides essential data to determine blast performance. This model is efficiently and precisely created through the use of an automated drone’s powerful data processing.

The counterpart to the pre-blast digital elevation model is, of course, the post-blast DEM, which can be created almost immediately following the blast, much faster than human surveyors could ever even access the site.

The almost real-time rock fragmentation analysis provided by a drone also represents a tremendous advantage to mining operations, not only helping to benchmark blast success but also providing essential particle size profile information to downstream comminution processes to make these processes more efficient.

True improvements

While any good industrial drone will more efficiently provide visual information, measurements and data necessary to improve the drilling and blasting processes, it is automated drones alone that can truly provide the time and cost savings necessary for gaining ground in this area.

An automated drone is one that can complete its operations with either minimal human intervention or none at all, is able to launch, fly and land, collect, send and process data, as well as perform necessary maintenance such as battery changing and payload and sensor swapping automatically without requiring human operators. This eliminates the substantial costs of drone pilots, eliminates much of the downtime needed for maintenance between missions, and allows for immediate launching when it comes to on-demand flights.

Automated drones may not, at this point, be able to transform into alien robot warriors, but they’re set to revolutionize mining environments nonetheless – especially with their drilling and blasting-related skillset. Automated drones understandably have a number of mining companies looking to the sky when they look to the future, as these high-flying aircraft can have a big impact on the bottom line.

Efrat Fenigson is the vice president of marketing at Airobotics, a company that has developed a pilotless, fully automated drone solution.

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