by George Nott

Miner South32 to trial autonomous drones

Feb 20, 2017
Technology Industry

Mining giant South32 is commencing trials of an autonomous drone platform at its Worsley Alumina mine.

It will be working with Israeli company Airobotics to conduct pre-programmed drone missions at the Western Australia site, to inspect equipment and map and survey the facility.

The mining company, which was spun out of BHP Billiton in 2015, has been using drones at its operations for around three years. Current applications include stockpile and pit scans, creating 3D models with point and photography data, inspecting confined spaces and infrastructure, incident investigations and environmental monitoring.

The trial will be the first time the miner has used fully-automated, multi-purpose drone technology and is the first publicised commercial use of the Airobotics platform, which launched locally in July last year.

The platform is made up of three parts: the drone, a completely automated base station from which the drone launches and lands without any human intervention, and cloud-based software, which enables users to control and manage missions.

For the duration of the trial a human drone pilot will be present to keep line-of-sight with the unmanned aerial vehicle, a requirement of CASA regulations. Airobotics is in the process of obtaining a CASA Remote Operator’s Certificate, the company said.

When landed on the base station, a robotic arm swaps out the drone’s payloads and batteries without the need for human intervention. The software allows customers to schedule and plan repeatable missions as well as process the data the drone collects.

“The launch marks an important milestone, being one of the first deployments for Airobotics in Australia,” said Airobotics co-founder and CEO Ran Krauss.

Rival miners Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group currently use drones to survey their iron ore mines, while BHP Billiton has been using drones at its coal mines in Queensland since 2015. Miner Roy Hill shared with CIO Australia last month how it was using drones to survey stockpiles and run environmental assessments, alerting operators to the wet spots after heavy rains.

Speaking to analysts as part of South32’s half year results last week CEO Graham Kerr said the company would be increasingly focused on digitisation and technology as a means of boosting productivity.