| TORONTO, March 7
TORONTO, March 7 An unmanned miniature
helicopter and something that looks like a small flying barbecue
are among the gadgets turning the mining sector into an emerging
frontier in the commercial use of drones, and at a fraction of
the costs of piloted craft.
Aero experts and mapping geeks pitch remotely controlled
aircraft as a cheaper and safer way to map deposit sites and
even explore for minerals than traditional methods.
"They are really safe, easy to use, lightweight. You can put
them in a small bag and take them everywhere," said Olivier
Kung, co-founder of Switzerland's Pix4D, which makes software to
convert photographs from the smallest drones into usable data.
Ranging from overgrown model airplanes to tiny, wasp-like
helicopters, drones arrive as mining companies are forced to
write down assets they bought during boom times and executives
say they are committed to getting control of their costs.
Governments are loosening restrictions on the commercial use
of drones. U.S. regulators, for example, are preparing to open
their tightly controlled airspace to unmanned aircraft operated
by private companies in 2015.
Mike Hutt, who heads the unmanned aerial vehicles project
office for the U.S. Geological Survey, said mapping with drones
can be much cheaper than traditional aerial surveys.
"It may cost $2,000 an hour to rent a helicopter," he said.
"Our costs for sending a couple of operators out with a system
is under $200 an hour."
Hutt's office has run all kinds of pilot projects,
monitoring mine reclamation work, finding forgotten mine
entrances - a major safety hazard - and locating underground
coal seam fires in West Virginia, Colorado and Montana.
DRONES AT PDAC
British Columbia's Accuas Inc was one of several
drone-related start-ups working the crowds at the Prospectors
and Developers Association of Canada convention in Toronto this
week. Accuas builds detailed, three-dimensional maps using its
drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.
"I would say starting a year ago, there's been a really big
push on UAVs," said Scott McTavish, the president of Accuas. "I
think it's going to continue to grow."
Accuas, which started out mapping landfills, now works for
engineering firms, gravel producers and oil and gas companies.
It started pursuing mining clients in earnest last year, after
buying better equipment. Since then, its projects have included
mapping for Anglo American PLC in British Columbia.
Precise maps of open pits can help plan mines and monitor
the angle of slopes, a key safety concern because of the risk of
rock slides. Drones not much heavier than a laptop computer can
take measurements usually made from the ground, without putting
extra workers near dangerous heavy equipment on an active mine
Pix4D, the Swiss software company, is growing quickly - from
about five employees a year ago to 13 now. Kung said that growth
is being driven by the mining industry.
He said he has already worked with most of the world's major
mining companies, including Rio Tinto PLC. The big
companies' research departments are experimenting, but a larger
part of his business is with small surveying companies.
Some aerial mapping can be done with satellites or from
conventional aircraft, but low-flying drones can collect more
detailed data, often just using a camera, and because they fly
below the clouds, there is no need to wait for a clear day.
The next frontier for drones in the mining business may be
exploration, the search for new mineral deposits - something
that is now typically done with helicopters or small planes.
Marc Goossens, who does mapping and exploration work around
the world with his companies Geosense and Ursus Airborne, added
small UAVs to his toolkit about three years ago. He also uses
ground-based sensors, and conventional aircraft.
"It's much cheaper technology, much higher mobility, because
you can carry the equipment in a suitcase," he said. "You're
much more flexible."
Using a laser-based sensor to survey a square kilometer
could cost about 10,000 euros ($13,100) with a manned aircraft,
Goossens said, or 2,000 euros with one of his UAVs.
The problem is that many inexpensive drones are too small to
fly long distances, or carry magnetic sensors, an important tool
in exploration. That's where a Canadian company called Stratus
Aeronautics comes in.
Buddy Doyle first started following UAV technology in the
1980s. As a geologist, he was looking for cheaper ways to
collect data so that he could afford to do more drilling.
He started Stratus's predecessor, Universal Wing, in 2004.
In 2007, they flew a small survey at the Diavik diamond property
in the Canadian Arctic. But in those harsh conditions, their
military-grade drone did not perform as hoped: "It didn't like
landings," said Doyle. So they designed and built their own.
With sensors on each wing, the aircraft, with a maximum
weight of about 120 pounds, can fly magnetic surveys.
"The idea is to be an airborne data collector, best and
least expensive, and that's what we're doing," said Doyle. "The
biggest hurdle, I would say, is regulatory."
That's a common refrain. In the United States right now,
only public agencies can fly drones. In Canada, operators must
apply for regulatory waivers. In many countries, regulators
insist that drones stay within sight of operators on the ground.
That may not hold back site-mapping jobs like Accuas does,
but it's a big problem for extensive exploration. Doyle said
Stratus is working with Canadian regulators on technological
safeguards for long-distance flights, and he's optimistic that
they will be allowed to fly their drone longer distances.