There are few industries older than mining — agriculture and pottery have slim leads. However, the age of an industry has no bearing on how well it can embrace modern technology.

Mine sites across the world have leaned into the future of digital mapping and imaging. They’ve combined the use of drones and industrial tablets to perfectly map not only the external topography of mining sites, but also to delve deep into underground tunnels and caverns.

Not only do they increase safety by inspecting potentially dangerous underground locations, but drones can also perform autonomous checks of existing external and subterranean structures and equipment.

But how does it work? What can drones and industrial all-in-one computers really do for the mining business?

Industrial Drones for Mapping and Measuring Mines

Drone copters, whether pilot controlled or autonomous (or possessing the ability to switch back and forth), have a number of uses for mining operations. However, by far the most popular, and the most talked about, is their ability to map and measure locations. The data gathered from these mapping expeditions has incredible use for any operation, and can streamline processes that are either slow, tedious, expensive, or prone to draining days or weeks of man-hours.

Drones can be sent down mine shafts to map or inspect tunnels. The drones come equipped with gravimetric sensors, accelerometers, low-light cameras, and collision sensors, all to facilitate underground exploration without incident. LiDAR systems allow the drones to fully map the interior of a tunnel or mineshaft with full 3D fidelity.

With autonomous drones, this data can be stored locally and uploaded to a server, or can be streamed live to a nearby industrial tablet or industrial panel PC as part of a larger control panel. For drones being piloted through mine shafts, the pilot can stay far back in a known safe area, flying the drone with a rugged industrial tablet or other mobile solution.

Drones can also map the external site of a mine, too. Flown far above the site, drones can capture a birds-eye-view of every component. The drones use their LiDAR systems to capture all topography, everything from surrounding hills to haul roads to stockpiles and loose raw materials.

This 3D map can be accessed at any time on worker tablets or computers, and can be rotated, zoomed, and even altered to allow for future estimations. Best of all, this 3D map retains all measured data — if, a few months after the initial mapping, you want to see what the volume of a trench on the map is, or calculate the height and width of a geographical feature like a hill, you can simply square off that area and the software will do the math.

Building Mining Infrastructure with Industrial Computers

Drones aren’t just great for mapping pre-existing areas, but also as information-gatherers for future build plans.

Mining sites need haul roads — small, loose paths for trucks and other vehicles to access needed areas and, if needs be, haul away or deliver material and equipment. A perfect 3D topographical map of the area, accessible from the nearest rugged PC, can be used to plan where to place haul roads, and even to calculate how much filler material will be needed to fill the entire volume based off weight tolerances and location.

Disposal of toxic or radioactive tailings from the mining process is one of the most important processes in any working mine. These tailings can hardly be tossed into a barrel and shipped off — we’re talking about millions of tons (or more) of potentially dangerous materials. Building a tailings dam is the most common solution to the problem, but the construction of such a massive undertaking is hardly simple.

Tailings dams are some of the largest man-made structures on Earth — why rely on surveyors on the ground when you can get a perfect view from the sky?

A drone map can help find the safest and most viable spot to build the tailings dam, and can also use its volumetric calculation abilities to determine how much material is needed to complete the project.

Using Drones for Inspection and Upkeep

In the mining industry, “permanent” isn’t a word that gets thrown around very often. Mineshafts can be unreliable due to geological conditions, haul roads are literally made of shifting particulate, and even the mightiest tailings dams can erode with time and weather.

Of course, even mining equipment and man-made buildings around the mining site can break, crack, or generally degrade over time without proper upkeep.

That’s where drone inspection comes into the picture.

For hard-to-reach equipment and buildings (high up in the air or in small spaces under the Earth), the drone can either run a one-time inspection when needed, or be scheduled on a regular basis to perform flyovers to gain data. In the past, the underside of a high catwalk gathering rust might go unnoticed, but a drone has none of the limitations of a human inspector.

For mineshafts, drones can be flown through existing, frequently-used tunnels as well to check for changes. The highly-accurate LiDAR mapping can be compared against older maps to check for alterations — has the diameter of the mineshaft grown or shrunk? Are there fissures in the wall that weren’t there before? Has the temperature changed compared to previous data?

Regular drone inspections down commonly used tunnels could literally save lives.

Aerial drone inspections are perfectly suited for checking haul roads and tailings dam embankments as well. These structures tend to get washed over time by rain, wind, water, and gravity, and could spell disaster when they fail.

A partially-washed out haul road could spill a truckload of workers down an embankment. The consequences for a tailings dam failing are even more far-reaching and catastrophic and could impact the local environment for years to come.

A drone gets a more complete view of these structures, plus, the 3D scan it creates can be compared to older scans. The drone can find out where washouts have occurred (or where they’re likely to occur), what haul roads may no longer be safe to drive on, and where the retention wall of a tailings dam may have shrunk in the past few months or years.

Improve Security and Industrial Asset Management

Keeping track of industrial equipment isn’t always easy, but a flying robot with perfect vision and laser-accurate mapping tech could be pretty good at it.

Add all of your major equipment and vehicles to the drone’s 3D topical map, and it can not only inventory equipment, but can even track usage patterns.

A drone flyby is also great for worker data analytics. See where workers are most likely to congregate, find out which areas are over- or under-staffed, and learn which equipment and gear gets used the least (or the most).

Should a disaster or other emergency occur, someone can grab a mapping drone and put it to work right away. Right from their industrial tablet, the pilot can scan the entire exterior or interior of the mine to assess damage, spot potential disasters like fires, and even help locate missing workers.

Redefining What Industrial Drones Can Do

Drones and industrial tablets are incredibly useful for other industries too, of course — they can inspect sewers, power tunnels, old buildings, and any kind of decaying infrastructure that’s difficult or dangerous for human beings to access.

After all, there’s a reason there are over 2-million active drones in the world right now, with that number expected to double by 2022.

To learn more about pairing industrial computers with modern drone technology, contact Cybernet today.