Even though unmanned aircraft are proving useful to virtually every industry, it might not be expected for them to have any role in mining — digging deep into the earth for coal and other natural resources. Once you get beneath the surface, however, it’s clear that drones have a growing role to play in this field.
For a coal mining operation, what’s above the ground is just as important as what’s below it. That process starts with surveying the land and planning the complex operation known as a mining site.
Kespry, a drone-based aerial intelligence solution provider based in Menlo Park, California, has developed an aerial intelligence platform tailored for use in areas such as construction, insurance claims and coal mining.
It’s important for a company like Kespry to understand every stage of a coal mining operation. “Our customers have been able to utilize our system from start to finish for a coal mining project,” says Jason Nichols, product marketing manager with Kespry.
Other companies are tying drones and, more importantly, the data derived from them, into mining operations as well.
Drone Deploy, based in based in San Francisco, has a specialized package for mining operations, which includes professional-quality maps and 3-D models. Likewise, Trimble, active in a variety of industries, has its Connected Mine system, which can incorporate data from company drones.
In 2016, San Francisco-based Airware bought the company Redbird, a drone analytics pioneer, to bolster its offerings for mining and similar industries. The effort paid off a year later when Airware received a strategic investment from Caterpillar Ventures, which allowed it to “accelerate programs that enable [Caterpillar] dealers to offer solutions and services within the construction, mining, and quarrying industries,” the company said. 
Starting with data
Coal mining projects often begin with conceptual studies of a proposed site, which benefit from being supported by 2-D and 3-D topographical mapping information. Traditionally, companies hired manned aircraft to perform manual flyovers of proposed sites. While that data is valuable, it comes with significant cost and time-delay factors. Companies are given a one-shot snapshot of a site — a frozen moment in time that, by the time ground is broken, may be very out-of- date.
Some smaller sites opt to create topographical surveys using traditional GPS equipment to determine land changes or details on existing developed pit areas. This hands-on survey may be more accurate than aerial data collection but is not without its own shortcomings.
“You’re limited on the data and obviously you’re putting people on the ground where there may be hazards on the site they have to navigate,” says Kespry’s Nichols.
Kespry’s UAS hardware and software packages provide comprehensive data sets that streamline not just the planning stages of an excavation, but the permitting process as well.
“Clients can pull that data into existing plans and designs,” says Nichols. “They’re able to leverage and draw out more advanced and broader conclusions about how they go about submitting plans or developing a particular site. They have a full topographical map and data set to support existing mine plans and conceptual studies.”
Once a coal mining site enters the excavation stage, operations begin to remove any material overlaying the coal beds and stratification layers.
“Customers are using UAVs to support mine planning operations once the site is under way,” says Nichols. In open-pit mines, these procedures, known as stripping and cap- blasting, benefit greatly from the pinpoint accuracy drones can provide.
Coal mine operations must maintain accurate inventory management, which requires them — often by law — to track the amount of overburden material they store on site as they extract the coal reserves. Often these estimates are done manually and by line-of- sight measurements, which aren’t always the most efficient or the most accurate methods.
“That’s time and money on top of that how much of the reserves they’ve extracted out, compared to the reserve model,” says Nichols. “What’s the rate of production? How well are they doing according to their original mine plan?”
Using drones on a frequent basis increases the accuracy and timeliness of these estimates. Companies can get daily real-time snapshots of their coal mining sites.
“Things change pretty quickly and having access to that information is critical,” says Nichols.
Previously, coal mining operations used GPS rover systems or even more rudimentary methods like wheel-tape measures to estimate stockpile height.
“This was limited data,” Nichols says. “The amount of material could only be known up to 25 percent of the true volume. With drones, you’re getting down to 1-3 percent of true volume over a manual survey on the ground.”
This increased accuracy lets companies know the efficiency and profitability of their operations.
There is much to be monitored beyond these bottom-line elements. Federal and state agencies often require detailed data on the conditions of coal inventories stockpiled on-site.
“There are different types of regulations and applications the regulators want to know about stockpiled material.,” says Nichols.
Kespry recently worked on a pilot program at a General Electric coal- fired power plant in Wyoming that expanded the use of drones beyond the usual parameters. UAS with special sensor arrays collected data on the temperature, humidity, carbon monoxide levels of coal stockpiles.
“Drones are playing an important role not only for volume data but are also being looked at as new sensor technology develops to support other kinds of data that coal power plans need to function and adjust their operations to what they have currently on site,” says Nichols.
Kespry’s UAS use artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide both powerful data collection and ease-of- use for users in the field. Pilots use an iPad app to tap out a flight plan, and the drone flies the mission by itself.
Mapping mineshafts and drones Down Under
It’s not just U.S.-based coal mining operations that benefit from using unmanned aircraft. In the United Kingdom, the U.K. Coal Authority has been mapping and monitoring the locations of more than 115,000 abandoned mineshafts, many of which lie on publicly accessible lands.
Some of these shafts are hundreds of years old, presenting clear dangers not only to citizens but also to inspectors charged with mapping them on foot.
SLS Coastway Surveys contracted with the U.K. Coal Authority to use UAS to do the job safely and quickly. The aerial photographic data their drones provide is matched with GPS data for accuracy. So far, these UAS have proven successful in not only mapping existing shafts, but also in locating previously unknown mine sites.
Meanwhile, in Queensland Australia, UAS are proving their worth at sites operated by BHP Billiton.
“There are many examples where drones are making mining safer, most obviously by helping keep our people out of harm’s way,” says Frans Knox, head of mining production for BHP Billiton. “At some of our coal mines in Queensland, they’re used to ensure areas are clear before a blast takes place and to track fumes post-blast. They’re also used to improve road safety on sites, by monitoring traffic, road conditions and hazards. At our Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, the maintenance team use them to help inspect overhead cranes, towers and roofs of tall buildings to avoid working at height.”
Knox says his company has tested drones fitted with military- grade cameras to provide real-time aerial footage and 3-D maps of coal mining sites. This is far cheaper than using manned airplanes for survey work, and he estimates savings at their sites in Queensland alone could top A$5 million a year.
“With drones, we now gather more information about our sites than ever before,” says Knox. “We can more quickly and accurately measure our stockpiles, review compliance to design against mine plans and understand where we need to make changes to improve safety or boost productivity.”
UAVs have proven their worth in this industry, but there is always room to improve and innovate. Kespry’s Nichols emphasizes the importance of listening to customers and helping them realize solutions to their needs. Kespry also assists clients with training materials and support in getting the proper clearances and pilot licensing.
“We started off getting a good foothold in the aggregate and mining industry,” Nichols says. “Obviously coal is a key player and we’ve had several success stories and customers within that space. Having customers in specific industries, you learn what their specific needs are. Everybody benefits from that as well.”
Kespry’s UAS-based platforms are offered on a subscription model. Nichols says this gives customers access to new solutions and innovations as they are developed for different clients.
“Everybody feels the same improvement across the board,” he says. “We push our software and hardware updates automatically to all our customers as we make these improvements.”

Using an array of sensors, Kespry's UAS can monitor the size and height of coal mine stockpiles. Photo: Kespry