Across industries, the potential for drones or unmanned aerial vehicles is starting to be realised. From military drones to children’s toys, drones are making a big impact. The mining industry is no different, and drones are already being used throughout the world for maintenance and exploration activities.

Companies are turning to drones for a number of reasons, such as improved safety, increased efficiency and cost savings. This has become particularly attractive in recent years, as depressed commodity prices have forced companies to search for ways to increase productivity.

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One of the first companies to begin using drones was BHP Billiton, a world leader in the production of iron ore, metallurgical coal and copper. The company operates predominantly in the Americas and Australia, with a workforce of more than 60,000.

BHP has now been using drones for three years, throughout various operations in its Australian mines, and has recently started trialling their use in mineral surveillance. So what makes them so ideal for the job of surveying?

Maintenance, monitoring and mapping

BHP first started trialling the use of drones in 2015 at its Queensland sites, and has since used them in a number of different ways. “At some of our coal mines in Queensland, they’re used to ensure areas are clear before a blast takes place and to track fumes post-blast,” says BHP head of production for mining BMA Frans Knox. “They’re also used to improve road safety on sites, by monitoring traffic, road conditions and hazards. At our Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, the maintenance team use them to help inspect overhead cranes, towers and roofs of tall buildings to avoid working at height.”

The company is now testing specially adapted drones to conduct mineral surveys. Together BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) and BHP Mitsui Coal (BMC) have seven coal mines in the Bowen Basin in Central Queensland, operating as Queensland Coal, with a resource of 11.1 billion tonnes of high-grade hard coking coal. Mineral surveillance drones can help build 3D maps of these mine sites, allowing BHP to constantly monitor the mines’ progress and safety. They will also help to identify minerals for potential extraction by looking at mineral patterns.

“We’ve been trialling drones fitted with military-grade cameras to provide real-time aerial footage and 3D maps of our sites,” says Knox. “This is far cheaper than using planes for survey work, and the savings at our sites in Queensland alone are estimated to be A$5m a year.”

These drone-based surveillance systems are being developed alongside supercomputers that will allow BHP to analyse the site and make decisions at far greater speeds than previously.

“With drones, we now gather more information about our sites than ever before,” Knox says. “We can more quickly and accurately measure our stockpiles, review compliance to design against mine plans and understand where we need to make changes to improve safety or boost productivity.”

The drones are coming

Outside of site maintenance and development, BHP also expects drones to play a big role in its community work. This includes a current project where drones are being used to map areas of cultural heritage close to the mine sites.

“For me, the bigger picture is what this technology allows us to do that could never have been done before, and for us that means being able to share and preserve cultural heritage that might otherwise have been lost,” BHP heritage manager Daniel Bruckner said. “We’re now able to share all our footage with local Aboriginal groups, and they’re excited about that possibility.”

There are lots of positive reasons for transferring to the use of drones within mining, but many are concerned about the effect they will have on employment. The mining industry has been employing fewer and fewer people for decades; in the US, mining jobs declined by 60% between 1980 and 2015. Automation has played a large role in this drop, as machines are increasingly capable of taking on tasks that were previously labour-intensive.

This is a trend that seems likely to continue, as IoT and automation continue to make jobs obsolete. Automated trucks are already becoming a common sight on mine sites, reducing the number of drivers required by mining companies.

While drones may reduce the need for traditional surveyors, should BHP’s trial prove successful, they are creating a range of new, well-paid roles. A drone pilot at a mine site can expect to make as much as A$200,000 a year, as much as an airline pilot. It is one of a number of specialised roles being created by technology that require greater training opportunities to allow the mining industry to continue to develop apace.

“Technology will change the nature of work,” says Knox. “For example, with drones capable of delivering samples from site, surveyors will spend less time gathering data in the field and more time interpreting it. And soon, more drones could be managed by ‘pilots’ operating from a range of different vantage points.”

Drones look set to play an increasingly important role in mining operations around the world, increasing safety and productivity. Using them in mineral surveillance could save time and money, but a new generation of drone-capable surveyors must rise before it becomes commonplace.