Drones in underground mines – Applications and benefits

Drones that carry different acoustic, visual, chemical, and biological sensors, have various military and civilian applications such as search and rescue, surveillance, firefighting, weather monitoring, surveying, power infrastructure monitoring, and urban planning and management.

Recently, the mining industry has shown increased interest in using drones for routine operations in surface and underground mines. Generally, mines are located in vast and remote mountainous areas, and this makes the monitoring of mines and associated infrastructures a challenging task requiring extensive manpower. Monitoring mines by traditional methods are time and cost consuming.

Harsh, confined underground environments with reduced visibility, air velocity, and dust concentration also pose many obstacles for human workers. The underground spaces are designed to fit essential equipment such as drilling and loading machines, conveyors, ventilation systems, air, and water pipes.

Drones equipped with different sensors can conduct a quick inspection of an area, either in an emergency situation or hazard identification. They are beneficial in monitoring, surveying, mapping, blockage inspection, stability analysis, hazardous gas detection, leakage monitoring, and package delivery, leading to better mine planning and safety.

Drones in underground mines have numerous potential applications in health and safety. This post will explore some of the key applications of drones in underground mines.

1. Geotechnical characterization

The data collections in underground mines usually require the inspectors to survey the rocks physically. The presence of the personnel in unsupported areas such as open stope and newly blasted working faces endangers the safety of the personnel. Drones are the best suitable tools to be used in underground mines during the monitoring of unreachable areas. Their small size and maneuverability allow them to access hard-to-reach areas in underground mines without endangering the miners’ lives.

Imagery techniques such as photogrammetry and FLIR (forward-looking infrared) allow characterizing rock masses. Photogrammetry can provide data for generating geological models and structural data for kinematic and numerical analyses. Besides, FLIR imagery can be used to recognize loose rock areas, which generally remain unnoticed until it becomes a hazard.

2. Rock size distribution analysis

The majority of underground hard rock mines use drilling and blasting methods for rock extraction. Assessment of rock size distribution after blasting is an essential measurement for the next production phases (i.e., loading and hauling). There are some methods for rock size distribution analysis, including visual observation by an expert, sieve analysis, and image processing. Image analysis methods using drones are fast and relatively accurate for rock fragmentation measurements.

3. Hazardous gas detection

Hazardous gas detection is another critical use case of drones in underground mines. Using a set of sensors, drones can continuously measure atmospheric parameters and gas concentration that can create respiratory illness, environmental problems, and even fire in underground mines. Gases are volatile compounds that are colorless, odorless, and tasteless. So when these compounds spread in the air, it will be difficult to identify with the naked human eye. Equipped with a group of sensors and cameras, drones can detect gas leaks in underground mines.

4. Rescue missions

Most of the mines are in a remote area where common, reliable communication systems may not be available. Drones provide rapid solutions in support of communications coverage of rescue operations. Drones can offer disaster warnings and assist with accelerating rescue and recovery operations when the communications networks are not serving anymore. Drones also can carry medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas. In certain circumstances (e.g., poisonous gas infiltration and searching for missing persons), drones can support the role of accelerating these operations.

Applications of drones in mining

Once again, let’s summarize the key applications of drones in underground mines.

Safety and risk management

  • Slump prediction, stability monitoring
  • Erosion detection
  • Asset location
  • Damage assessment
  • Incident monitoring and data capture

Routines and control

  • Regular safety site survey
  • Management planning
  • Security and asset protection
  • Boundary management

Strategic planning

  • Pit and leach pad design
  • Road design
  • Slope assessment
  • Mineral exploration

Environmental

  • Water leakage detection
  • Vegetation encroachment
  • Tailings management and assessment

Infrastructure

  • Track and access condition
  • Watershed, drainage, hydrology
  • Pipeline inspection
  • Leach pad construction, change, and erosion

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