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Drone Technology

By: Nelendhre Moodley

South Africa’s Mine Health and Safety Council (MSCH) has approved funding for the roll-out of a pilot project, and expectations are that drone technology will be developed over the next three years.
Image: ©Unsplash. Drone - Jason Blackeye Image: ©Unsplash. Drone - Jason Blackeye

The University of Witwatersrand (Wits) is ready to develop the next phase of a drone-prototype which sets the platform for the world’s first drone technology, allowing us to ‘see’ underground mining operations from safe distances ― Prof Fred Cawood, the Director of the Wits Mining Institute at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, tells SA Mining in an exclusive interview.

According to Prof Cawood, this development will change the way in which drone technology is perceived. Drones are currently used by the military for destruction of property and people. We are looking to change these negative associations with drone technology “to move from a technology taking lives to one that saves the lives of mineworkers and finds them when they are trapped after an accident”.

Currently drone technology has extensive above-ground application, including recent developments by internet retail giant Amazon, which is exploring the use of drones for the delivery of small parcels (2.5kg) to distances of around 10 miles. The mining industry has also embraced the technology for above-the-ground use and is keen to give it an underground application.

According to Prof Cawood, the primary aim of drone technology is to gather information regarding the safety of underground sites, particularly after an event such as a rock fall or after rock-blasting, or to determine safety levels in old mine workings. The technology can also be used to establish the level of illegal mining activity at certain operations or in old disused mines and to gather important intelligence on air quality and other typical mining risks.

“For example, the Lily mine is now too unsafe for mine rescue activities, but some day there will be a need to undertake an intelligence-gathering exercise, and why risk human lives if the task can be performed by drone technology?” explains Cawood.

Over the past two years Wits masters student Stuart Edwards and his supervisor Professor Turgay Celik have been investigating various options available for inclusion in the development of drone technology such as anti-collision systems for navigating confined spaces, as well as suitable systems to power the technology, sensors on-board and software development for this purpose.

“We need to ensure that the technology has sufficient power and memory for real-time data/information transfer after equipping the drone with a reliable communication system, cameras and sensors to operate underground. However, it would be ideal if there are established communication systems, which will allow the drone to map underground spaces and record information in real time.”

Having learnt numerous lessons over the past two years, such as developing systems to prevent the prototypes from flying into sidewalls, the Wits University team believes that there are also lessons that it can adopt that are outside of the industry, such as satellite technology and technology used by communication specialists and cellular service companies.

Prof Cawood is confident that this will be a game-changer for the mining industry given the industry’s aspirations for zero harm by 2022.

A point cloud scan of tunnel
A point cloud scan of tunnel

“Zero harm is a complex goal but it must be our goal – one death is one death too many. However, it must be understood that achieving zero harm is easier for mining operations in countries where mines are shallow, and ore-bodies are not as complex, or located along narrow dips, as is the case in South Africa. Given our deep-level mining conditions, it is more difficult to achieve the zero harm aspirations, but it must remain South Africa’s target.”

According to Prof Cawood South African mines have ore-bodies that start at the surface and reach depths beyond 4km. “The risks are exponentially higher,” he states.

Aside from improving safety, the second goal for the development of drone technology is to assist mining operations increase operational efficiency and to mine better. “If we are able to tick both boxes, then we have more than achieved our mission.”

However, he does concede that workers remain concerned that deployment of technological advancements will see a reduction in the mining sector workforce.

“The focus for mining houses is to upskill workers to meet the needs of the twenty-first century. It is expected that, when designing new mines that incorporate the latest technology, management will have to ensure that the communities that service the mines have the appropriate skills ahead of a new mining venture. This will require a joint effort by industry and government, whose system of education must provide school-leavers with a skill set suitable for employment in a technologically intensive workplace. We need to train and educate – to a level where workers are not threatened by twenty-first century technology.”

According to Cawood, the WMI will identify local companies to commercialise its technologies.

He explains that new technologies like underground drones will benefit the country by opening the doors for local manufacturing and job creation, amongst others.

Interestingly, Wits University is not the only institution focused on developing drone technology for underground use, and there are at least two initiatives internationally that have identified this as an opportunity in the past year.

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