SafeSight – new eyes in the underground mines
The day is coming when small, unmanned drones will be able to get into areas of underground mines that were – or are – inaccessible to traditional mining methods.
It could be in the ventilation shafts, access shafts, the stopes, drifts or adits, with the drone operators at a safe distance.
And, in some cases, they will be able to be used in mine rescue operations, finding the safest path to rescue anyone trapped underground.
Not too far down the road, they also will be able to be programmed to operate autonomously, scanning with Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) to map out the mine workings and uploading the information to be used by the mine operators.
“That’s not 10 years away. That’s two or three years” down the road, says Mike Campigotto, president of SafeSight Exploration Ltd. in North Bay.
Last week, the company announced that its drones have marked the one-year anniversary of the launch of its underground drone flight program at Newmont Goldcorp’s Porcupine gold camp, with more than 100 underground drone flights without incident at the Hoyle Pond Mine.
“This is just the beginning of this sort of field” introducing the new technology into the underground mining sector.
Drones have been used for a number of years in open pits, but are a new player in underground mines.
“There are not a lot of companies in the game right now,” Campigotto says, with “no dominant player” in the industry.
“It’s important to work with operational mines” to make sure all the technology works as it’s intended, he says, in those specific circumstances.
But the three-year-old company, he says, is making itself known in the industry, getting information and feedback from the more than 70 mining-related companies operating in North Bay, and working closely with Newmont Goldcorp to transform the way things are done in the mines.
Already, the gold miner has four qualified drone pilots operating the machines in the surveying department.
The program embedded in Hoyle Pond’s survey team has taken LIDAR survey to the next level, SafeSight said in a news release marking the anniversary of the Hoyle Pond project. “Over the past year, our drone program has allowed our survey team to safely increase the speed, accuracy and capacity of our scans while the operator is at a safe distance out of harm’s way,” says David Poulin, Hoyle Pond’s chief surveyor.
“Weekly and, at times, daily flights helped us understand key functional requirements to ensure scans could be delivered in under an hour post flight, so that we didn’t slow down other elements of the value chain,” Jamieson McCausland, SafeSight’s lead robotics engineer, says.
Campigotto says the use of drones is a basic example of “replacing old technology with new technology.”
Drones using LIDAR, for example, can complete a survey of a stope or other working in 15 to 20 minutes, from the time the drone case is opened until the raw information can be uploaded to computers.
That provides 100 per cent coverage with a three- to five-centimetre variance.
With the old technology, the surveys could catch “60 per cent of the hole” from a stationary scanning unit mounted on bicycle-type tires, and the scanning process took about an hour.
“It makes (the workings) more accessible” with the amount of ore recovery quicker because of the more precise scanning.
Having a drone carry out the surveying work reduces the danger to employees, provides more accurate results and shortens the turnaround time of the data analysis.
The technology also is improving so quickly that it’s changing “almost quarterly,” he says.
It’s also gaining a “lot of interest” from players in the mining industry.
A big part is due to risk mitigation. Miners are able to see what is going on from a safe distance.
“Drones are starting to become a primary tool” that are “fast and safe” in an unfriendly environment.
They are also “really simple to use,” Campigotto says.
“Even I can operate them.”
He said in demonstrations at mine sites his company has “taken surveyors with no experience and had them fly in that setting.”
Campigotto founded SafeSight almost three years ago, bringing in a mining engineer, an electrical engineer, an aviation specialist, a geologist and a robotics and software engineer to have a full range of specialities at the North Bay offices to give the company the ability to handle all aspects close at hand.
He says the focus is “not to be research and development in drone technology. We wait for the leaders and integrate the best solutions.”
He points out that flying a drone in the tight confines of an underground mine is different from flying one in the open. Things like barometric controls and GPS don’t work underground, so the company had to develop proprietary sensors to give it the ability to do otherwise simple things like hovering.
Goldcorp, to his knowledge, is the only underground mine site in the world with its own operational drone program.
“Hoyle is the only one I know of that has integrated (a drone program) into its operational practices,” he says.
“I think it is the model of where the future is going.”
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