The use of unmanned aerial vehicles at mines is taking off in northern Nevada as operators apply the technology to tasks such as surveying and inspections.
The Federal Aviation Administration made way for the commercial use of drones, such as work at mines, when it updated commercial operation rules for small UAVs effective August 2016. Instead of requiring a pilot's license, the federal government allows an operator to pass an aeronautical knowledge test to be able to fly commercially under certain restrictions.
Drone-based businesses have since launched to answer the growing demand for drone equipment and services.
Pennsylvania-based Identified Technologies serves the SSR Mining Inc. Marigold Mine in Valmy, east of Elko, by providing a drone and data-processing services. In January, the company began training its staff and started to work flights into its routine at the run-of-mine heap leach operation.
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On a blue-sky day in early October, Marigold Mine Chief Surveyor Alan Clayson unpacked a tote containing a DJI-brand drone with four helicopter blades and coordinating equipment for a demonstration flight.
Watching was Identified Technologies CEO Dick Zhang, visiting the mine on a customer service call. Zhang started the business almost five years ago and got his start serving the construction industry.
"We've come so far. It's so satisfying, so fulfilling," Zhang said, explaining how his role at Marigold has morphed from trainer to spectator now that the mining staff is trained and certified.
Clayton and another employee earned their remote pilot certification through the FAA by completing an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-certified testing center. Marigold staff said they could have another person certified by the end of the year.
After the startup protocol, everyone stood back while Clayson launched the craft. It ascended with a buzzing sound like a mob of mosquitoes and stirred a low cloud of dust. Soon, the small flyer was a mere speck in the sky.
The drone automatically followed a line pattern according to the flight plan and captured data for about 14 minutes while Clayson monitored the object and tablet.
"Most of the magic of the process is after the flight," Zhang said, describing his company's data processing services.
At Marigold, the technology is used mainly for making topographic maps for reports and audits; taking detailed aerial photos of leach pads for solution application management; and inspecting slopes and high-walls in areas with limited access to search for tension cracks, settling and bench integrity.
Future uses at Marigold could include providing power infrastructure inspections, and creating multispectral and thermal maps to improve solution application management and detect hot spots in equipment.
The technology helps save the company manpower and money.
"With traditional methods, it took 20 hours of surveying and processing labor to obtain a detailed survey of a specific section of the mine site," Identified Technologies stated in a press release. "Using Identified Technologies' drone solution, the same results were achieved with (one) hour of work. This has allowed SSR to increase speed and productivity, without increasing staffing costs and headcount, while decreasing the frequency of its full site flyovers."