In Southwest Greenland, North American Nickel completed more than 5,000 helicopter fly surveys to identify its top twelve drilling targets. NAN used helicopters, which could fly closer to the land than fixed wing aircraft. The land-hugging helicopters got lower in rough terrain, and produced more accurate survey results.

Performing preliminary surveying for mining operations in any type of rough and remote terrain involves getting into the area and performing the survey work with accuracy, as well as facilitating the safety of surveyors who otherwise would have to undertake these risky and unpredictable tasks in extremely difficult conditions. On the ground surveying has been a staple in mining, since other aids to surveying like satellite photos do not always accurately show cliffs and rock formations.

Equally challenging is the planning of logistics for these large and expensive projects.

In many remote areas, roads, rail and other critical infrastructure are missing. The challenge is getting heavy equipment to the mining jobsite, so infrastructure viability must be determined in advance.

“Google Earth now gives you the ability to do some route surveys, especially in the U.S.,” said Janette Marlowe, president of the Planet Shippers project cargo consultancy and a partner in Project Cargo USA. “It enables you to look at bridges, roads and terrain and gives you the ability to simulate how you would drive down a certain route if you needed to bring a piece of equipment in to a jobsite. For instance, if there are load clearance issues, you could see how many utility lines you might have to lift. Or, the technology could give you the height of a bridge, or the degrees of the angles on a winding road that a truck would need to turn. Right now, due to information currency and accuracy issues, it still too early for companies to rely on this technology, so they must use “legs on the ground” to survey routes and jobsites in many areas of the world. But this new technology gives us a place to start, and in the future, promises to deliver great costs savings, especially if it is combined with drone technology.”

Can drones provide the eyes and the survey know-how to reduce the risk of manual surveys, improve accuracy of results, and also deliver visibility of the logistics challenges of getting equipment to and from the jobsite?

In June 2014, Geoprojekt used an unmanned drone equipped with sensors to take hundreds of photos per square kilometer for the Obora mine near Lubin, Poland. The photos were processed into a highly detailed point cloud that was similar to what could be obtained from LiDAR. The quality of the resolution enabled Geoprojekt to calculate dump volume as well as the volume of mining pits, in addition to estimations of slope stability.

In Australia, Rio Tinto Ltd. began using drones in 2012 to monitor mining stockpiles, map exploration targets and track mining equipment. “Drones will be able to shorten supply chains, and will change your ability to monitor, track and manage the key aspects of your mining business that are time critical in remote places,” said Nigel Court, Perth-based natural resources industry leader for Asia Pacific at Accenture. “One of the great things we’ll see with drones is immediate spare part delivery, literally within hours, where right now it can take days.”

The timely delivery of spare parts can mean saving hundreds of thousands of dollars if a major mining project in a remote area can avoid going offline. Just as importantly, personnel costs and safety risks can be substantially reduced if surveying by unmanned drones can map complex and difficult to access geographies like Mongolia.

“We see potential benefits (from drones) across the value chain, from safety and security, search and rescue, monitoring/providing information from dangerous and difficult locations, to exploration and development such as aerial photography and remote sensing and productivity, stockpile mapping, mine mapping and reconciliation and time lapse photography, just to name a few,” Court said. “Leading mining businesses are rapidly making these kinds of capabilities available through their use and customization of drones. Turning these ideas into results, of course, requires coordinated planning across the value chain and focused execution. While we are likely on the front side of the hype cycle, we believe these capabilities will continue to mature and will transform the industry."