20160927_123228To declare that the scale of MINExpo is humongous doesn’t even begin to paint a full picture of the event. With over 1,900 exhibitors taking up more than 840,000 sq.ft, of exhibitor space in the Las Vegas Convention Center, the enormity in terms of raw numbers is evident, but that scale goes beyond those numbers. It’s fairly safe to say the show brings together the people, tools and expertise from every corner of the mining industry.

Those tools are what ended up being the most monumental aspect of the event though, as the bulldozers, excavators, mining trucks and more overpowered the entire space. Even the small pieces of equipment showcase a size that is as impressive as it is astounding, and it’s impossible to not think about the logistics around how these tools are actually utilized. Granted, I’m sure that most of the attendees don’t have those same feelings about tools they use on a daily basis, but it’s clear they’re captivated by what they can see and experience at the event in a different way.

I wanted to find out what sort of feelings drones were compelling in this audience, and while UAVs certainly didn’t take center stage, it was interesting to see how both exhibitors and attendees view and think of the technology. A number of the developments and happenings that were on display at MINExpo 2016 will no doubt influence the future of how UAVs will be used in the mining industry, and with companies like Airware making a serious investment in this market, I thought I’d try to get a sense of where things are now and where they’re headed.



Getting a Literal Feel for the Industry

While I could further elaborate about the significance of standing next to machines that weigh up to and over 1.38 million lbs, the fact that such things have that kind of prominence at MINExpo is what’s especially noteworthy. The event makes it easy to see and understand that mining professionals want to get a sense for what a particular piece of equipment looks like, and even what it feels like to handle or touch that equipment. The necessity of that tactile sensation was especially apparent with drone technology.

20160927_135737I watched a few different attendees come by the RDO Integrated Control booth to touch and hold a few products from senseFly. Their eBee and albris units were both on full display and more than one attendee made it a point to stop and pick up the unit to see how much it weighed and what it felt like to physically handle. Various comments were then made about it being smaller than they envisioned. Clearly, the expectations some had built up around what the technology looked and felt like did not line up with reality.

Similarly, attendees were curious about how something as small as the DJI Matrice 100 could make much of an impact in the sort of environments attendees are used to working in. Would something like that hold up when flying through the debris and other commotion of an active mining project? After getting a better sense of the drone’s capabilities, which include universal power and communication ports, the fully programmable nature of the drone and its’ enhanced GPS, attendees went on to ask far more specific questions that would help them solve specific issues on a given project. Naturally, that was after picking up the drone and seeing what it felt like for themselves.

It’s clear that mining professionals have expectations around equipment they can use on a project, and at least some of those expectations are based on how these tools actually look and feel to the professionals who will be using them. A more widespread embrace of drones in this market might just be a matter of literally getting a UAV in the hands of more people.



The Industry is Both Creating and Embracing New Technology

There are always challenges when it comes to embracing change, and that’s as much due to people as it is to technology. A certain approach or tool is seen by an organization or even an entire industry as the way things are done, and changing that can be difficult. That was part of the reason it was so encouraging to see that new technology is not only being embraced by mining professionals, but these changes are being driven by powerful concepts and relevant needs.

VR technology was showed off in various booths, including the Trimble booth where attendees were able to step into a virtual mine. The technology is designed to showcase the concept of the connected mine, which connects data from all over a mining project with the people who are making critical decisions. The concept of the connected mine wasn’t limited to the Trimble booth though, and neither was the VR Oculus Technology, which was being used by various companies to show attendees everything from how their equipment could be utilized to conducting training programs.

20160927_143634The embrace of these new tools and technologies certainly extends to drones, and the development of something completely new that is driven by a market need is personified by the RIEGL RICOPTER. As one of the leading providers of LiDAR scanners and scanning systems, the company hadn’t been looking to develop a drone, but became the first to offer a fully integrated, survey grade LiDAR UAV solution based upon the fact there was no perfectly suited carrier for RIEGL’s VUX-1 LiDAR sensor available on the market. The RICOPTER has, since introduction in 2014, offered the market a complete solution that fits a specific need for mining professionals, which includes the necessary sensors, UAV platform, and accompanying software from one single manufacturer.

Tools like the Vapor 55 are also important to mention when it comes to the creation of a relevant new technology, especially in terms of how it can be utilized since it’s payload agnostic. The advantages of the helicopter model start with the additional safety aspects along with being built for dangerous environments like a mine, but the autonomous auto-rotation feature is what really sets it apart.

These are the kinds of concepts and tools that have already changed the mining industry in countless ways, but it was clear professionals across this sector are both ready and willing to take a closer look at what it will mean to leverage such things.



Disruption at Different Scales via Various Products

A few of the education sessions at MINExpo focused on how things are developing in different markets and with technology in a very general sense, but it’s clear that changes in both of these areas have caused disputation in the mining industry that continues to make waves. Sessions dealt with various topics that included, “Maintenance,” “Research”, “Automation” and “Underground Mining”, but the info shared in each went into far more detail than is indicated by the session titles.

The “Markets” session featured a presentation and discussion as participants talked through how the mining sector has been fundamentally reshaped, and in that process has become more volatile and more vulnerable. Revenues and the EBITA of the global mining community were also showcased, as well as some numbers that detailed how the growth in certain regions was exceptionally fast, and why that won’t be repeated. During “Automation #1” the presenters worked to show what kind of change the industrial Internet will drive but made sure to highlight where automation will play a role in terms of the impact to safety, productivity and reliability.

Additionally, companies like Hélicéo are driving a different sort of disruption with products like the DroneBox, which can be utilized on a number of different platforms, including a multi-rotor and fixed wing drone. One thing that’s talked about in many different contexts is how drones shouldn’t be thought of as something that can solve every problem on a project but should instead be simply thought of as a tool. Being able to utilize different platforms while capturing the same necessary information will go a long way to helping more people understand that concept.

20160927_151948Disruption is something Delair-Tech has seen with UAV packages that feature up to 200 km range and over 2 hours of endurance, but they’ve seen it in a very different manner, mostly because their customers are already asking to see how things can be further disrupted. The feedback they’ve gotten has been about where UAV technology can go from here, as they’ve used tools like drones and are now trying to assess how to procure additional benefits. It’s one of the reasons Delair-Tech has set up new offices in the United States.

It’s impossible to accurately measure the speed of these kinds of disruptions and how they’re impacting various professionals, but they are absolutely happening in the mining space, and they’re changing the expectations of everyone.



Data and the Connected Mine


The concept of the connected mine is one that came up in terms of VR technology, but it’s also one that companies are trying to make a reality in far more concrete ways. As an example, Topcon’s UAV fixed wing and rotary wing solutions are designed to connect the field and the office in real time. Their intelligent mining solutions include mass haul solutions, surveying and monitoring solutions, aerial imaging solutions, excavation solutions and plenty more.

As pervasive as drones have become, there are still some that wonder about the true benefits of the technology, either because they’re unsure of what UAVs are actually capable of doing, or they don’t understand how they can make a difference. Some of those people were at the event asking such things aloud, but as soon as they saw the data that’s associated with a drone they understood the true benefit. Using data as the starting place allowed them to see that drones aren’t about doing something especially different or unnecessary. They know what it means to capture and utilize various kinds of data, and thinking of drones as an easier or more efficient way of gathering that data is typically the most effective way of talking through the true benefits.

The concept of the connected mine is one most attendees were familiar with, but many struggled with the logistics around actually creating or enabling one, either because of their own internal processes or because they simply didn’t have tools to permit that kind of connectivity. How drones will be part of these connected mines is an open question that likely varies from one organization to another, and perhaps even from project to project. However, a focus on data and what can be done with that data provides a much more effective starting place in terms of figuring out the right approach and tools.



The Importance of Specificity

MINExpo features countless companies that are selling a single product or variation of that product, with examples ranging from boots to tires. However, there were also plenty of companies that featured massive options and choices, whether they were related to consulting services or heavy machinery. It’s easy to see how companies with that single product are able to be specific with their customers, but the reality is that organizations with those various options can be just as specific. Examples of that specificity were everywhere, but in terms of drone technology, it was especially prevalent in the product that the Rigid Robotics team had to show.

20160927_150817Instead of being a drone company that has created a product to serve the mining sector, Rigid Robotics is a mining organization that has created a drone. They were showing off their CONDUCTOR platform, which is a tethered unmanned aerial system. The CONDUCTOR is designed to offer specific capabilities that mining organizations will be able to leverage, which are related to persistent surveillance, volumetric measurements, and more. The tether also means the drone does not require downtime in order to refuel or recharge, which solves a major concern that many mining professionals have expressed about the technology.

At the Geoshack booth, Lockheed Martin’s Indago Mapper drone was on display, and representatives talked up how the UAV can collect data and view composite photos showing the progression on a job site. Additionally, Sentera’s Phoenix Mapper fixed-wing drone has a highly reliable, easy-to-use, professional-grade autopilot and intuitive flight-planning process, all of which means that miners can quickly grasp how to actually fly the drone, which is another key issue in terms of adoption.

Regardless of the product, it was clear that the mining professionals here weren’t especially focused on potential or possibility. They wanted to discuss how these tools actually could and would be utilized, and those were the specifics exhibitors and attendees talked through in detail.



Drones, Autonomous Mines and the Future

There were only 11 companies listed under the “drone” product category for the event, and a few of those companies seemed confused that they were listed there to begin with. So the technology still has a way to go in terms of adoption. Nonetheless, an informal poll showed that around 70% of the people at the event knew about drones and how they might impact a project, while 10% had either actually used or experimented with using a drone on a project. The interest is clearly there, and with the lengthy Section 333 process no longer serving as a barrier to entry, many people and organizations are open to taking the next step.

In fact, if I had to say, I would guess the reason there weren’t more UAVs and drone companies at the event is because Part 107 only recently went into effect. While some had been counting down the days until it became official, others were fine with waiting to see what would happen. Many of those people who were content to hold out are in the mining industry. With that barrier to entry eliminated, numerous people expressed an interest in drones in a way even they admitted they wouldn’t have done just a couple months ago.


As proof of that sentiment being legitimate, the concept of creating a completely autonomous mine was one that came up in more than one instance. It’s a concept that would see a mining operation taking place in the middle of the Australian Outback, even though the people controlling everything would be located far away from that location, and there wouldn’t actually be anyone working within that mine. All the world would be done autonomously.

Anyone with even a vague notion of that kind of future knows drones will be a major component of this kind of autonomous ecosystem. They’re also aware of the fact that utilizing UAVs today brings the industry a step closer to that eventual dream, which makes it a worthwhile effort in more ways than one.


MINExpo won’t be back until 2020, but you can check out plenty pictures from this year's event below to get a sense of how drones and various other pieces of equipment are set to make a difference in the interim.



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