PDAC-Drone startups woo stretched miners for survey work

Thu Mar 7, 2013 1:56pm EST
 
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By Allison Martell

TORONTO, March 7 (Reuters) - An unmanned miniature helicopter and something that looks like a small flying barbecue are among the gadgets turning the mining sector into an emerging frontier in the commercial use of drones, and at a fraction of the costs of piloted craft.

Aero experts and mapping geeks pitch remotely controlled aircraft as a cheaper and safer way to map deposit sites and even explore for minerals than traditional methods.

"They are really safe, easy to use, lightweight. You can put them in a small bag and take them everywhere," said Olivier Kung, co-founder of Switzerland's Pix4D, which makes software to convert photographs from the smallest drones into usable data.

Ranging from overgrown model airplanes to tiny, wasp-like helicopters, drones arrive as mining companies are forced to write down assets they bought during boom times and executives say they are committed to getting control of their costs.

Governments are loosening restrictions on the commercial use of drones. U.S. regulators, for example, are preparing to open their tightly controlled airspace to unmanned aircraft operated by private companies in 2015.

Mike Hutt, who heads the unmanned aerial vehicles project office for the U.S. Geological Survey, said mapping with drones can be much cheaper than traditional aerial surveys.

"It may cost $2,000 an hour to rent a helicopter," he said. "Our costs for sending a couple of operators out with a system is under $200 an hour."

Hutt's office has run all kinds of pilot projects, monitoring mine reclamation work, finding forgotten mine entrances - a major safety hazard - and locating underground coal seam fires in West Virginia, Colorado and Montana.   Continued...