How Mining Productivity And Safety Soar With IoT Innovation

Christina Frazier

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—better known as drones—are becoming important tools in mining and milling.

Yet UAVs might not have been so quick to take off in commerce without an ambitious announcement by Amazon in 2013 and the growth of what we now call the Internet of Things (IoT).

Today much innovation in business processes involves the IoT’s vast network of objects, such as drones and smartphones, which exchange information through the Internet.

Innovation on your doorstep

Five years ago, most people thought of drones as instruments of warfare. But Amazon revealed it was developing drones for doorstep delivery of customer orders.  The consumer fulfillment service estimated that in five years it would be able to deliver goods by drone within 30 minutes of customers placing orders.  The New Republic called the project a space-age cartoon “fantasy.” The magazine indicated that FedEx leadership considered Amazon’s plan a joke.

Last March, Amazon finally overcame enough obstacles to launch its first drone delivery within American public airspace. And by that time, drones were already aiding the mining and mill products industries.

It’s perilous to consider digital innovation a joke. Businesses may get left behind by failing to invest in technology that leads to improved performance and competitive advantage.

IoT and Big Data management

What seems like science fiction today may become tomorrow’s business success story.

From alarm clocks that connect with work computer systems to fleets of drones that share information, IoT objects provide machine-to-machine communication that people do not need to initiate.

These objects contain sensors that accumulate data. IoT-solution software gathers this data through the Internet, then sorts, analyzes, and responds to the information. Another more powerful level of software called a platform helps all the software programs work together.

Due to its quantity, the information gathered from IoT sensors is called Big Data. Mining UAVs produce huge amounts of data, because they are used for projects such as 3D mapping of company land.

Drones over Goonyella

The Australian Business Review described the mapping process in a March 2016 article about Queensland’s Goonyella Riverside open-pit coal mine. BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi own the mine.

Goonyella began using UAVs in 2015. Each is battery-powered, weighs 2.5 kg (about 5.5 lb) and flies up to 40 minutes at speeds up to 80 km/h (about 50 mph).

A flight plan uploaded to a drone’s memory card tells it where to fly over the mining site. Then the drone may cover up to 80 ha (roughly a third of a square mile) using IoT-connected sensors and cameras to gather data (such as volumes) and images for conversion to 3D maps.

The newspaper reports that the information gathered by a single drone in 40 minutes would take weeks for a team of surveyors to record. Now, surveyors are expanding into management of data produced by drones.

BHP Billiton is one of the world’s largest mining companies and is also known for production of metals and gas. Writing at the BHP Billiton blog, Frans Knox—head of mining production—says UAVs are less expensive and safer than planes for survey work.

Knox emphasizes that drones are helping BHP Billiton to improve worker safety overall. For example, he says, drones monitor road traffic and hazards at mine sites.

Also, Knox adds, drones can identify whether mining areas are clear before blasting. Afterward, they record any blast fumes. He adds that the UAVs also aid inspection of multi-story objects such as overhead cranes so employees can minimize dangerous work at heights.

Lessons from birds

Drones face dangers, too. One aspect of working with them that mining companies never expected is their destruction by eagles, which view them as prey.

Both South Africa’s Gold Fields mining company and BHP Billiton have tried camouflaging the vehicles. Gold Fields painted theirs to look like small eagles, but wedge-tailed eagles continued destroying them. By November 2016, the company had lost $100,000.

According to the avian conservation organization Audubon, wildlife biologists have encountered similar problems when using drones to study birds. Nevertheless, the magazine reports that UAVs save researchers’ lives.

In the past, these scientists flew in light aircraft to get close to bird nests in places that are difficult to reach. But crashes—many at low altitude—became the “number-one killer of wildlife biologists,” Audubon reports.

Audubon also reports that the price of UAVs is dropping as more manufacturers produce them. It adds that some UAV designers are finding ways to make the vehicles more durable.

UAV designers have gained ideas from birds. The magazine notes that innovations include arms for grabbing objects in mid-air, “kestrel-like legs that allow drones to perch” and the ability to glide on thermal updrafts.

Another improvement Audubon cites is UAVs with “vision-based navigation” to avoid obstacles.

Overcoming obstacles

Three of the biggest obstacles to commercial use of drones are legislation limiting their use in public airspace, cost, and managing the high volumes of data they produce. UAV design may ease the first problem as drones become less prone to crashes.

As for cost, development of UAVs for the consumer and academic research markets helps make them more affordable for industrial tasks.

Finally, the third obstacle is disappearing as digital technology designers create tools and IoT-solution software for harnessing Big Data.

Five years ago, few corporate executives knew much about the IoT and how it would create new tools for productivity such as UAVs. Now, industries such as mining and milling are showing business another way to take off digitally.

Learn how to bring new technologies and services together to power digital transformation: download The IoT Imperative for Energy and Natural Resource Companies. Explore how to bring Industry 4.0 insights into your business today: read Industry 4.0: What’s Next?