Making digital elevation modeling in mining affordable with automated drones

Drones are helping mining firms undertake digital elevation modeling - image courtesy of APS.

Over the past ten years, a big part of the digital elevation modeling process has massively improved. The GIS and DEM software industry has grown by leaps and bounds with top of the line open-source and proprietary software capable of processing massive amounts of data to quickly produce precise DEMs in a range of formats.

This improvement in DEM production has meant great things for the mining industry. However, half the process is only half the battle when it comes to producing these valuable models. All that data that goes into DEMs still needs to be obtained, and without the right solution, it’s an onerous and expensive process.

An old tradition

Whether DEMs are being used for the before and after evaluation of blast sites, to evaluate stockpiles, monitor the erosion and encroachment of tailings dams or to provide the most detailed haul road inspections, the work that goes into gathering the necessary data is immense.

It can take days for traditional surveyors to measure hundreds of points. Not only is this inefficient in terms of time and costs, but it also often necessitates shutdowns of operation-critical equipment or infrastructure. Worst of all, surveying can be one of the most dangerous jobs regularly undertaken in mining.

A potential solution first presented itself when drones entered the industrial market. UAV mapping and surveying arrived with much fanfare thanks to an industrial drone’s ability to capture data from millions of points. With the significant expense of hiring a drone pilot, not to mention the expense of having one on-call for on-demand flights, however, the cost savings never really materialized, and companies could hardly be blamed for either opting to not produce as many DEMs as would have been optimal, or sending out human surveyors to gather the necessary data.

It would take one more innovation before industrial drone digital elevation modeling reached its true potential.

Enter automation

The issue with standard industrial drones is the need for a pilot, so it only makes sense that to improve the efficiency of automated drones, the need for a pilot had to be eliminated. Leading automated industrial UAVs are able to automatically complete entire digital elevation modeling missions. This includes everything from ensuring it has adequate power and equipping itself with a LIDAR or photogrammetry sensor to launching and collecting data from millions of points to landing and processing that captured data with a wide range of compatible software to produce infallibly precise digital elevation models. A case study conducted by Israel Chemicals Limited found that automated drone stockpile evaluations using over 9 million more points than traditional surveying had an elevation accuracy increase of 127% which resulted in a crucial stockpile volume difference of 1.37%.

The benefits of having easy access to the information provided by DEMs are many. Measuring the accuracy of blasting, preventing environmental disasters related to tailings dams, keeping accurate stockpile evaluations and reducing fuel expenses and wear and tear on trucks by monitoring for even a 1% increase in haul road rolling resistance are chief among them. With a leading automated industrial drone, though, there’s no need to limit drone applications to digital elevation modeling as these drones are capable of equipping themselves with any number of sensors for any number of applications. Security and surveillance, quick inspections of sites before blasting, detailed inspections of equipment and other infrastructure, even emergency response flights are all made possible with this cutting-edge technology.

Survey says

For mining companies that have long had to weigh the costs, benefits and even risks of surveying missions for digital elevation models, the times of turmoil have ended. With automated industrial drones, these models are much more accurate, much cheaper, and much quicker to produce. Combined with the GIS and DEM software that came before it, automated industrial UAVs are equipping mining companies with the most complete and most accurate information possible for many essential processes.