Achieving New Heights at Rio Tinto Kennecott
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Achieving New Heights at Rio Tinto Kennecott

By Andrew Carey, Senior Engineer, Director Of Drone Operations, Rio Tinto Kennecott

Andrew Carey, Senior Engineer, Director Of Drone Operations, Rio Tinto Kennecott

Rio Tinto Kennecott’s Bingham Canyon Mine has been a fixture in the Salt Lake Valley for more than 114 years. Since its operational beginnings, Kennecott has been an innovator contributing to the improvement and revolution of the mining industry for more than a century. Today, Kennecott continues to embrace an unwavering pioneering spirit by implementing technology to monitor safety conditions and improve the efficiency of the business.

For centuries miners have worked above and below the surface of the Earth with fairly consistent procedures and processes. With the introduction of drone technology, the mining industry has entered a new dimension that takes safety and efficiency to greater heights.

In order to harness and manage this drone technology, Kennecott created a dedicated team of professionals to ensure all flights are performed safely and in compliance with FAA regulations and Kennecott’s

specific drone procedures. These procedures include a detailed risk assessment process prior to any new drone mission, an extensive drone maintenance program, twenty hours of hands-on practical flight training, pre-and-post-flight checklists, a detailed flight logging system tracking aircraft and battery hours and drone telemetry data. In addition, the drone team must be continually aware of sharing airspace with manned aircraft and operating above and in proximity to Kennecott employees, equipment, and infrastructure. Thanks to this detailed program, Kennecott has completed more than 1200 drone flights and 400 flight hours in 2017 with zero incidents.

Drones currently allow Kennecott to access areas of the mine that have been restricted to employees due to safety concerns or simply because the areas were too large to access and analyze with previous technology. These vehicles provide a new-found flexibility and aerial perspective previously only possible to achieve by chartering expensive manned aircraft. It is now as smooth and seamless as employing one of Kennecott’s 30 trained and FAA certified commercial drone pilots, and dispatching one of ten drones to the area of interest. Drones have quickly become the go-to tool for surveyors, geologists, geotechnical engineers, and mining engineers to access areas of the operation at a safe distance, while improving the efficiency and effectiveness of critical data collection.

Kennecott’s drone pilots have varied professional experience, educational backgrounds and work scopes. This diverse group includes surveyors, geologists, mining engineers, drill and blast engineers, geo-technicians, environmental engineers, railroad personnel, electricians, geotechnical engineers, planners, asset management personnel, and hydrologists.

"With the introduction of drone technology, the mining industry has entered a new dimension that takes safety and efficiency to greater heights"

Along with the extensive experience of the drone pilots comes a multitude of use cases, including:

• Aerial surveying
• Geotechnical inspection and structure characterization
• Geologic mapping
• Asset and infrastructure inspections
• Drill and blast filming and optimization
• Electrical infrastructure inspections
• Infrared and thermal imaging applications
• Underground inspections and mapping
• Stockpile management and accounting
• Aerial photos and video
• Railcar inspections
• Confined space and indoor inspections

Kennecott drone operations are making an indelible mark in mine safety and efficiency, with the company continuing to innovate and explore new ways to utilize the forward-thinking technology. The future will bring expansion with the following projects on the drawing board for consideration:

• Aerial LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) which provides increased accuracy in survey data collection without the need for ground control. This data also speeds up the processing time of data collection by removing the need for lengthy post processing times seen with the current method of photogrammetry.

• The need for increased resolution continues to grow. Currently, high resolution cameras with 100 megapixel sensors provide this extreme detail while also allowing for increased ground coverage as drone altitude increases. Such technology will allow Kennecott to fully and efficiently capture the enormity of its operations.

• Aside from surface mining operations, Kennecott has an extensive network of underground workings that require frequent inspections. Drone technology is currently being investigated to assist with this work. Innovations in drone operation for flight in GPS denied environments will allow advancements in underground use as well as indoor and confined space applications.

• Data management is vital as drones are collecting copious amounts of data each day. Cloud processing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) will soon be the norm for change detection and automated data analysis.

• Alongside technological improvements, advancements and changes in FAA regulations such as allowing beyond line of sight flight, increasing altitude restrictions and the stream-lining of controlled airspace authorization will unlock additional value in commercial drone use.

In summary, drones have allowed for a significant change in the steps of data collection at Kennecott. After a single year of in-house operations, it is difficult to imagine reverting back to operating before the introduction of drones.

David van Hees, Manager of Energy Systems Optimization at Kennecott, is confident the drone program will continue to make significant contributions to successful mine operations. “The combination of support at Kennecott and across Rio Tinto combined with our talented team has cemented the belief that drone technology is going to deliver tremendous value and propel us into an exciting era of success.”

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