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The increased civilian use of drone aircraft over the past five years has been keenly observed by various groups associated with the mining industry in Australia. One profession in particular has already begun to adopt UAV technologies into daily work schedules, namely Mine Surveyors.
The Mine Survey team at Territory Iron is one group that have recently been awarded an operating certificate from CASA to use UAVs at their Frances Creek operations, approximately 100km north of Katherine in the Northern Territory. Darryn Dow, Chief Mine Surveyor for Territory Iron, outlines what was involved in order to achieve this certification and how his team have embraced the use of UAVs as part of their instrument fleet.
“We started to look at the potential for UAVs at our mine in late 2012. Given that our team had no previous aviation or RC knowledge, we searched for a turn-key application which included hardware, software and training. This was to help integrate any system we purchased into our current mining operations with minimum disruption to our daily task lists. At that time there were few systems that ticked all the boxes we wanted, especially cost, and we finally decided on the Sensefly Ebee/Pix4D package being distributed by Haefeli Lysnar Geospatial Solutions in W.A.
We also approached CASA about the same time seeking direction on how to obtain the certification necessary to comply with regulatory guidelines. This lead to enrolling one of our Surveyor’s in the BAK and PPL courses being offered by the Western Australian Aviation College in January and March 2013. Our first Surveyor was CASA certified in June 2013, and another Surveyor will be applying for his certificate in April this year. By years end we plan to have 3 certified controllers to cover our FIFO rosters.
We then set about applying for the Operators Certificate for Territory Iron. Not having completed Operating Manuals of this kind before, we did struggle to come to grips with the content and structure required. Luckily for us John Frost, CASA Airworthiness Inspector for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, helped us simplify this process by supplying us with a preferred Generic Operating Manual that had been developed to guide new applicants, and we tailored it to reflect our intended use. Risk Assessment and Drug/Alcohol policies already existed within the company so we submitted these to show we were capable of managing our UAV system safely. Following a trip to Canberra to complete the field testing component of the submission, we were awarded our Operators Certificate in December 2013.
To date we have flown more than 100 missions and collected data for a wide range of tasks. Monthly reporting of stockpile inventories, pre and post-mining imagery of land disturbance, data capture for exploration and mine planning purposes, photo evidence of environmental and heritage compliance, as well as general presentation imagery used for site communications, account for the majority of routine use of our UAV. We recently begun to develop geological mapping missions which will eliminate the need for personnel to access areas of the open pit that are hazardous (rock fall potential) or congested (interaction with mobile mining equipment)
From a surveyor’s perspective, I was initially sceptical that we could produce results that would adhere to the spatial accuracies we achieve with conventional surveying instruments like GPS and laser scanners. This has been enhanced by placing numerous Ground Control Points within the mission area to aid the spatial corrections applied during software processing. Although we allow a slightly larger tolerance in absolute positions achieved with the UAV, the results still fall within industry accepted standards. Now, I am confident we regularly achieve a high quality result.”
By choosing to introduce a UAV at their mine, Territory Iron have managed to significantly reduce exposing their Surveyors to the risks associated with walking over blasted and un-even ground, and minimised the interaction between pedestrians and heavy mobile equipment whilst in the field.
Paired with the ability to provide a safer working environment for the Survey team, Territory Iron believes it has rapidly embraced leading-edge technology to keep pace with industry peers. They also believe this offers greater opportunities for career development of their employees, aids in staff retention, and encourages their employees to expand the range and quality of the service they can provide to the mining operation.
“Capturing point cloud data generated by photogrammetric techniques has been a great addition to the outputs of the Survey team. Generally photos are more familiar than CAD generated drawings when presenting plans within the mining team, so being able to mesh both formats together gives a higher confidence level that plans will be more easily understood. Creating an image library over time has also improved our historical records system for statutory heritage and environmental reporting.
Since we can do this safely, quickly, and whenever the weather is favourable, means we have improved our contribution to the overall project, and increased the efficiency of the current Survey team. The safety benefits alone justify the costs associated with introducing UAVs to our mine.”