Mining is a major industry in Africa – and drone companies have established themselves there to grow with the industry. Service provider Rocketmine, a division of French company Delta Drone, was the first licensed commercial drone operator in South Africa and Ghana and flies the largest fleet of drones on the continent. That’s because, explains Rocketmine Africa Sales Executive Eric Delabrousse. “Drones are a game changer for the mining industry.”
Rocketmine does not call themselves drone operators, they’re data acquisition specialists: taking care of all of the elements of the drone program for their clients and delivering the data within 24 hours. “All the customer cares about is the data,” says Delabrousse. “We take care of everything else.”
“What’s the most important thing for mine operators?” asks Delabrousse. “It’s safety. And what’s the next most important thing? Profit.”
After flying thousands of flights over mining operations, Rocketmine has established a process to address the primary needs of mining operators during blasting: Safety, efficiency, and accountability. Their four-step procedure is designed to ensure safety and provide the entire organization with valuable data:
1) Pre-blast safety inspection. With a required safety area of 1 km, being able to have an eye in the sky to determine that nobody remains in the blasting safety radius is critical.
2) Blast monitoring – take live video feed of the blast. The blast video can be played back in slow motion, allowing engineers to determine that everything has gone correctly. If something goes wrong, they have the data they need to diagnose the problem.
3) Post-blast safety inspection – flying after the blast can ensure that no explosives remain live and that the area is clear.
4) Fragmentation analysis – Drones can provide precise information on the output of the blast using mining-vertical specific data analysis to measure output. This allows blasting engineers better planning and predictability.
Delabrousse explains that drones not only cost significantly less than manned aircraft, they can be more precise. For the required annual aerial survey of the mine, for example, drones are vastly more cost effective: and provide more accurate information. But he doesn’t claim that drones can do everything.
Drones have an “economic sweet spot,” in mining, he says. UAV Photogrammetry fits between laser scanning and satellite imagery – not as accurate as laser scanning, but more accurate than satellite. For stockpile measurement, surveying, and other mining requirements orthomosaics, 3D point clouds and 3D modeling is accurate enough.
How can mines measure the ROI of a drone program? They need to consider multiple points, says Delabrousse. There’s the accuracy of surveys and inventory, the cost of data acquisition, safety and risk mitigation, and finally the timeliness and frequency of reporting. Delabrousse points out that being able to fly daily instead of at sparse intervals provides data that just was not available previously, and gives mining companies greater opportunities for managing operations. “The more you use them, the more you want to use them,” he says. “There’s a data waterfall – all that information becomes really useful for other departments.”
“It’s like falling in love,” he laughs. “You can’t imagine how you lived without it for so long.”