Mines can be dark, damp, dirty, and dangerous. That makes them ideal environments for drones.

So, it’s no surprise that an increasing number of mining and aggregates companies have been incorporating uncrewed systems in their operations in recent years. According to a 2022 report, some 70% of large mining companies have started using drones since 2016. A survey of those companies found that 83% of them were using the technology for surveying and mapping, and 68% said they used drones for monitoring and inspections work. Survey respondents also reported that they are integrating uncrewed technology to enable safety improvements, handle route logistics, and manage stockpiles.

Because of the many ways that drones bring efficiency, accuracy, and increased safety to mining work, many experts are expecting explosive growth in the adoption of uncrewed technology. For example, a recent study predicted that the drone inspection and monitoring market will grow at an annual rate for 15.1% between 2022 and 2027. That means the industry would increase from $10.5 billion to $21.3 billion in just five years.

While more and more mining operations are expected to incorporate drones into their work, there are some companies that are holding back. Initial investments in uncrewed vehicles, as well as costs for software, training, and skilled personnel, are beyond the reach of some mining companies. In addition, some mining companies say that it can be difficult to develop appropriate workflows to get the most out of the technology. For others, adapting to  complicated and ever-changing regulations has proved daunting.

To better understand the barriers to drone adoption in the mining and aggregates industries and find ways to overcome them, Commercial UAV News spoke with Lauren Elmore, a partner at Elmore Companies and the CEO of Firmatek, a company that provides geospatial mapping solutions and guidance on using uncrewed systems for clients in many industries, including mining. Here are her insights:

1. Initial investmentEvery industry faces significant challenges when adopting new systems. It can be difficult to pull together funding for initial investments in hardware, software, and training. Do mining operations have the resources, time, and knowledge to efficiently implement drone programs?

Elmore: With the changes in technology, the initial investment in the tech can actually be quite low. The barriers are really the time and knowledge. We have found some organizations are willing to hire dedicated people that can get trained and shepherd the program. But a lot of organizations don't have the human capital to run their own programs. That's where a service provider can help companies adopt the technology and get the information they need from drones, without having to run their own programs.

2. Creating the right workflows – Companies face many challenges when integrating uncrewed aerial systems. Chief among them is the creation of workflows. How can mining operations create effective workflows for drone and data collection and other applications and be sure that those workflows enable them to reach their goals?

Elmore: Start small. Find the easiest thing to do with the technology that makes a positive impact. For us, that's usually stockpile measurement. Then, once clients are consistently using the technology, they tend to drive the further adoption themselves by asking if it can do this or that.

3. Defining and capturing appropriate accuracy – What happens when mining operations attempt to capture more data than they really need? How much accuracy is too much? What is the right trade-off between simplicity and accuracy?

Elmore: You can get really good data pretty simply these days. The technology has come so far in the last five years. For the majority of the work being done on a typical open pit mine, you don't need expensive drones and sensors. For our team and our clients, we like to keep it simple. Historically, you needed the complexity to get the level of accuracy that you needed, but that just isn't the case today. 

4. Safety, policies, and regulationsMining operations take place in environments where there are few, if any, people, so safety concerns around drones are usually minimal. Still, safety protocols in mines are firm and must be adhered to. Do government policies and regulations pose challenges to mining operations looking to incorporate drones?

Elmore: In general, we believe drones make mine sites safer. But do government policies and regulations make it slightly more difficult to keep a fully functioning program up and running? Yes. There are rules around registration and pilot certification etc. that someone needs to manage. These are things that Firmatek handles for our in-house team and our clients that fly their own drones. A hybrid model where clients lease from Firmatek but fly and process their own data through Kespry can make keeping current on these regulations a bit easier.

5. Hiring and training staff – How can mining companies hire employees and get them trained to either operate drones or manage the related data capture and analysis functions? Are there best practices for hiring and training?

Elmore: We provide training and ongoing support to our clients, and that tends to be what we see work the best. When clients choose to just "figure it out" it typically does not go well. So, whether you use Firmatek or someone else, getting someone who has SOPs and best practices in place to train the team and give ongoing direction is key.

6. Changing business processes and culture – Mining is one of the world's oldest industries, and there are many “tried-and-true” practices that have long defined the mining sector. The introduction of a new technology can pose issues around corporate culture and business processes. How can the mining industry overcome these issues and enjoy the full benefits of uncrewed technology?

Elmore: Part of the answer to this is getting in front of the right people in the organization. While on-the-ground teams may be slow to change, sometimes corporate teams like finance, accounting, or other high level corporate groups see the value for them. They see how the technology could change the way they operate and the visibility they would have into operations across the company. Finding a champion like that can help with adoption.