Uncrewed Solutions: Will Drone Solutions Help The Mining Industry Overcome Labor Shortages?

SPH Engineering
February 28, 2023

In recent years, the mining industry has faced significant challenges in attracting and retaining workers. The industry has been plagued by a need for more skilled labor, with many experienced workers nearing retirement age and a younger generation that often views mining as a less attractive career option.

For instance, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia report* said the Western Australian mining and resources sector could need as many as 40,000 additional workers by mid-2023, according to new modeling exploring a deepening skills shortage that has now extended Australia-wide. This has led to a lack of workers, resulting in increased costs, lower productivity, and longer project timelines.

However, as technology advances, the industry has been exploring new solutions to address these challenges. One promising technology gaining traction in the mining industry is using drones for the most labor-intensive operations, namely geological mapping and geophysical surveys. Drones are used to collect high-quality data in remote and hard-to-access areas, providing geologists and exploration teams with detailed information about the geology of the site and the surrounding terrain.

In addition to the already common application of drones for capturing high-resolution aerial imagery and topographic data, sensors, such as ground-penetrating radar (GPR) or a magnetometer, are used to collect magnetic and electromagnetic measurements, which can help geologists identify potential mineral deposits or plan upcoming operations most efficiently and safely. The data can be collected over large areas quickly and efficiently, making airborne sensors a valuable tool for regional mineral exploration, especially in the following domains:

  1. Mapping of lithology: Airborne GPR can be used to map the lithology of an area by detecting changes in subsurface electromagnetic properties. The data can be used to create detailed maps, images, and profiles of the subsurface geology, which can help to identify areas of interest for further exploration.
  2. Mapping geological structures: Magnetics can also be used to map geological structures, such as faults, folds, and alteration shear zones, that may be associated with mineral deposits. By measuring the magnetic properties of the rocks surrounding the structure and adequately processing such data, it is possible to identify the frontiers of the probable deposit and map the extent and location of the structure.
  3. Detection of conductive zones: Airborne GPR can detect anomalous zones, such as shear zones (conductive avenues) associated with mineral deposits, faults, and fractures associated with essential target areas for production. The size and shape of the anomaly can provide information about the geometry of the primary target area, which can help to optimize the exploration program.
  4. Identifying magnetic anomalies: Minerals that contain iron, nickel, and cobalt have strong magnetic properties that can be detected using magnetometers. Drone-based magnetometry can identify magnetic anomalies in the earth's surface, which may indicate the presence of mineral deposits.
  5. Detection of shallow structures: Airborne GPR can detect shallow structures, such as buried channels, sand and gravel deposits, and the thickness of permafrost-related layers. 
  6. Targeting of drill holes: Airborne GPR can be used to identify areas of interest for drill hole targeting. The data can be used to create 3D models of the subsurface geology, which can help to identify the most prospective areas for mineralization. This can reduce the cost and risk of drilling by targeting only the most promising areas.
  7. Mapping groundwater: Airborne GPR can map the depth and distribution of groundwater in an area. This information can be used to identify areas with a high potential for mineralization, as mineral deposits often occur in areas with elevated groundwater.
  8. Detecting buried structures: Airborne GPR can also detect buried structures such as abandoned mine workings, tunnels, and pipelines. This information can help to identify potential hazards and reduce the risk of accidents during exploration and mining operations.

The use of drones in the mining industry has the potential to reduce labor shortages and increase productivity. Drones can provide accurate and detailed information about mineral deposits, enabling exploration companies to make more informed decisions about where to focus their efforts. As technology advances, drones will likely play an increasingly important role in the mining industry's future.

The above-mentioned operations can be conducted in a less time- and resource-consuming manner compared to conventional handheld devices. The main benefits could cover the following:

  1. Time and labor efficiency: Drone-based surveys are faster than those with handheld devices and require less personnel, as drones can cover large areas relatively quickly. This means that exploration companies can get results quicker, which is crucial in the highly competitive world of mineral exploration.
  2. Large-scale exploration: Drone-based sensors are better suited for large-scale mineral exploration because they can cover a larger area quickly and efficiently. This is particularly useful for exploration companies looking to survey a large area quickly, such as in the early stages of exploration.
  3. High-resolution and more accurate data: Drones can fly at a lower altitude, providing high-resolution data that can reveal more detailed information about subsurface geology than on airplane or helicopter-based sensors. This is useful when exploration companies must identify and map out mineral deposits with high precision. Also, drone-acquired data requires less pre-processing, resulting in time and effort savings.

Don't miss out on exploring the ways drone technologies can benefit exploration projects! 

Join our webinar "From Sky to Mine: Enhancing Mineral Exploration with Drone Technology" on March 2, 5:00 PM (GMT+2).

We'll cover how you can scale your operations without adding to your workforce and get more accurate data.

Register Now »»»

*Reference: The Assay - Mining investment news, insights, and company profiles