The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is deploying a Phantom 1 UAV in Western Guinea to help its government regulate the flow of diamonds and stop the spread of “conflict” or “blood” diamonds – gems mined and used to fund civil wars in West African nations like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola.
The scanning drone uses hi-res cameras to create maps and elevation models that can track where and how diamond mining operations work at seven artisanal mining sites in Western Guinea.
“The ability to map and monitor artisanal diamond mining sites is a necessary step towards achieving formalization. Doing so helps to identify where mining is taking place, the extent of activities, the amount of production, and how the activity and production change over time,” writes Katherine C. Malpeli and Peter G. Chirico in the April issue of Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing magazine.
Aerial imagery allows mining experts to determine which sites are active. The UAV provides hints to types of mining activity by showing how much gravel has been extracted, how water colors change – which indicates what kind of sediment is being disturbed and how sedimentary layers are being extracted.
“The ability to map an entire site from one or two field locations is particularly beneficial for [mining] research, as mine sites are often located in remote areas, can be several square kilometers in size, and sections of sites may be inaccessible or even dangerous for researchers to traverse due to a lack of roads, surficial disturbance due to mining, or other challenging terrain,” Malpeli reports. Using a quadcopter allowed the team to survey a sight in under an hour.
“While UAS are currently being used for numerous environmental mapping applications, to our knowledge this project represents the first time a UAS has been used for mapping ASM,” Malpeli said. “One of the principle benefits of using a UAS for this application is that very high-resolution data can be collected over a relatively large area in a short amount of time.”
Using the mapping drones ultimately allows the team to support the Kimberley Process, an international initiative tasked with stopping the outflow of blood diamonds. Since the process involves detailed tracking of production, determining activity in smaller, artisanal mines can be difficult since the diamonds quickly disappear in a dark network of informal commerce soon after extraction.
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