Striking drone gold

One of Australia’s largest mining and metal companies is digging into drone use as a viable means of information gathering and the results may be a virtual gold mine of data for the industry.

According to a recent company press release, Rio Tinto — a British-Australian multinational — is using drones to monitor its coal and iron ore facilities in Western Australia and Queensland. Deploying a combination of fixed-wing and rotary UAVs equipped with video, infrared and other sensor arrays, the company can survey stockpile inventory, perform remote survey work, monitor wall movements in mines and inspect various infrastructure lines.

“Information will be the single biggest differentiating factor between the mining operations of the past and those in the future, and drones can produce a wealth of information to allow us to make better decisions,” said Rio Tinto technology and innovation executive Greg Lilleyman.

If drones continue to perform well in Australia, Rio Tinto could expand UAV use in other mining regions across the globe including Canada. The company, which employees more than 60,000 workers in more than 40 countries, mines aluminum, iron ore, copper, uranium, coal, and diamonds and refines bauxite and iron ore.

“We see immense potential for drones to help extend the advantage Rio Tinto holds through the innovative use of technology, to improve the safety and productivity of our operations,” Lilleyman said.

The company has been experimenting for a few years now with a variety of drone models especially for “monitoring and inspection tasks that either presented safety risks for its staff or took up a significant amount of time, allowing the miner to remove staff from such situations,” according to a recent report in IT News.

Miners to strike drone gold

Next up for Rio Tinto will be a trial program to deploy drones to monitor “geo-technical issues in difficult-to-access areas, as well as for inspection of long stretches of infrastructure such as power and rail lines,” IT News added.

drones as force multipliers

“Drones are also significantly cheaper than helicopters, and negate the need to buy or rent scaffolding and other equipment for inspections. Similarly, equipment can stay online during inspection,” company officials said.

The drone strategy is part of Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future program that includes deployment of 54 self-driving trucks, an autonomous long-distance railroad system, and an automated drilling system.