How drones can facilitate mining exploration

Bnamericas Published: Friday, November 18, 2022
How drones can facilitate mining exploration

UAV México is offering mining drone services like detecting potential areas of operations prior to physical exploration, capturing high-resolution images and operating artificial intelligence software.

The company was founded a decade ago, but has been operating in Mexico only for a year. Clients include Agnico Eagle and Ternium. They gain access to services like 3D volumetric and geometric data acquisition, as well as geospatial data with terrain and environmental information.

BNamericas talks to UVA's operations manager in Mexico, Carlos Aguilar Conde, to learn more about the advantages of using drones in the mining and other sectors.

BNamericas: How has the company performed in Mexico this year and where else are you operating?

Aguilar: We offer drone services. We fly equipment with sensors that can help identify some characteristic of the terrain or the environment, and for that we use high-end sensors.

We are offering our services in nine Latin American countries. We started as UAV Latam, but we gained reputation and have branches in Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Brazil, and in these countries we are operating this type of equipment.

We arrived in Mexico a year ago and we are operating with the experience of other countries where we had previously worked with other teams, with drone certifications and even with licenses from the Mexican air authority. The company was founded nine years ago, but in Mexico we’ve been established only for a year.

BNamericas: In which places and sectors have you identified the greatest opportunities?

Aguilar: We identified opportunities in all sectors related to the inspection of electrical transmission lines, of vertical infrastructure, for example wind generators, telecoms transmission towers, photovoltaic parks for use with thermal sensors and fault identification. But also in mining, which is very strong in Mexico, we have identified many ailments in terms of data needed to obtain topographic information and that we can offer.

BNamericas: Which mining clients do you serve?

Aguilar: We have had direct contact with mining companies. We have Agnico Eagle, Ternium and we have had conversations with others.

BNamericas: What kind of projects do you carry out for the mining sector and which ones are most profitable?

Aguilar: Clearly, identifying the topography to explore has been most profitable at this point.

BNamericas: What are the main uses of drones in mining in the region and in Mexico?

Aguilar: Digitizing land, and for exploration we can use multispectral sensors that can help identify material in the first substrate or with the naked eye and that helps direct people who are on-site to specific places, before going to the field, and then establish a drilling strategy.

For this we use a multispectral technology, meaning the sensor that is mounted on the drone plays with wavelengths and then does mathematical calculations of bands and this gives us data that finally translates into very accurate values of materials.

BNamericas: Where are the biggest obstacles in offering solutions for mining? Are there options for underground mining?

Aguilar: I think that would be the time needed for aeronautical management. [Once done], we can move in a day to reach the location, make the flights that are required and process the data. The authorization is for the operation, not the drones as such, but the flights, and it comes from [federal civil aviation agency] AFAC.

BNamericas: How long do authorizations take?

Aguilar: Three to six months for each project. Sometimes it's a bit slow.

BNamericas: What are some of the main challenges in the region and in Mexico regarding the use of drones?

Aguilar: The biggest is the regulation and perhaps the altitude of Mexico’s main mountains. There is equipment we cannot operate at this point. Mexico is already a difficult area because 70% of the terrain is 2,000m above mean sea level. The most sophisticated drone in flight can reach 7,000m. The problem is where they take off from.

Currently, in Mexico we are only offering open pit solutions, but we are also going to offer underground solutions.

BNamericas: Do you have experience with underground operations?

Aguilar: In consortium, we gained experience and there are already certified pilots in special equipment to navigate an underground mine.

BNamericas: Which Latin American and Caribbean nations offer the best regulatory framework for network solution projects and why?

Aguilar: It is a very good standardization because we are regulated by [international civil aviation organization] ICAO. Each country offers greater advantages or facilities. Peru and Chile are more accessible. In Mexico, we are even working face-to-face with authorities so we can open a larger piece of land to operate this equipment more easily, expedite the permits and for that we are obtaining licenses, paying insurance policies. Among drone operators in Mexico, we are among the three that are paying for policies.

BNamericas: What are the most important regional network solution projects in UAV’s portfolio?

Aguilar: Precisely, in exploration we had something quite important for gold and silver mines with a Lidar sensor, which is already finished. There is interest in starting a new project in Mexico. And another quite interesting one we carried out was inspection or aerial surveillance of more than 3,800km of natural gas transport infrastructure. This is a completely unprecedented milestone.

BNamericas: How is technology changing the segment? What advances or novelties are emerging with the use of drones, and what major changes are in store for the next 5-10 years?

Aguilar: There is equipment with greater autonomy that is changing the energy by which it is moved. Now equipment is electric and no longer fuel-based, because it is incorporating photovoltaic panels and recharging during the flight.

We have much more powerful sensors that allow us to obtain data in the jungle, drones that are providing bathymetry data. This type of technology is growing at the same rate as drones. Passenger load is important because tests are underway and there have been completely autonomous flights with drones transporting people.

The largest drone we currently have has a wingtip to wingtip length of eight feet [2.4m].

BNamericas: What are your sales goals for Mexico in 2023?

Aguilar: We have a goal of US$1mn. We are currently eight people, four of which are operators, but sector needs made us see that this is a totally achievable goal.

We are professionalizing the segment, get licenses as drone operator by the authority, have insurance policies and are managing ISO 9001 and other quality certifications that we are going to obtain in the future.

Miners can buy drones on their own but they require training, equipment replacement, data post-processing, in addition to permits, and it is a path they would have to start from scratch while we have already traveled a long way.

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