The mining newspaper for Alaska and Canada's North

Drones map depths of Northern mines

North of 60 Mining News - May 31, 2024

Series: Digging Tech | Story 2

Aerial robots quickly and safely deliver detailed maps of Northern Star and Agnico Eagle's underground mines in Alaska and Nunavut.

From providing an advantageous survey of mines and mineral exploration sites from the sky above, to autonomously mapping the depths of underground operations, drones are playing an increasingly important role in safe and efficient mining around the world.

Two companies with gold mining operations at opposite ends of the North of 60 Mining News coverage area – Northern Star Resources Ltd. in Alaska and Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. in Nunavut – see drones as an integral part of more efficient, accurate, and safer mining operations.

"Agnico Eagle Nunavut operations employ drones for a wide range of applications, including stockpile measurements, volumetric reports, various inspections, and surface mapping," said Roch Lapierre, a surveyor and drone pilot for Agnico Eagle. "We believe we are utilizing drones to their full potential in our northern operations, enhancing every aspect of our day-to-day tasks in both underground and surface mining."

It is easy to imagine that drones offer mining companies a skyward vantage point for mineral exploration, measuring stockpiles, or inspecting mine sites. What may be less obvious are the advantages these aerial robots provide to underground mining operations.

A recent study carried out at Northern Star's Pogo gold mine in Alaska found that the cutting-edge, autonomous drones designed and produced by Exyn Technologies deliver faster, more accurate, and infinitely safer underground mine mapping than traditional underground mine surveying technologies.

"[T]he data doesn't even compare," said Andrew Loomes, chief mine surveyor at Pogo.

Agnico Eagle, which also uses Exyn drones at its underground gold mining operations in Nunavut, agrees.

"Exyn drones have significantly enhanced underground mine mapping at Nunavut Agnico Eagle's sites, improving safety, efficiency, accuracy, and productivity," Lapierre told Mining News.

Enhanced mine mapping

Exyn drones are the integration of three modern technologies into a platform that is ideal for underground mine mapping – the drones themselves, a guidance system capable of autonomously navigating complex subterranean environments that are beyond the reach of the global positioning system (GPS), and a mapping technology that captures underground mine passages in unparalleled detail.

As the first aerial robots in the world to achieve Level 4 autonomy – which means the drones can detect and avoid objects without the assistance of humans or GPS while carrying out preprogrammed missions – Exyn drones have proven to be a great tool for mapping historical mines that have been abandoned for decades and are too dangerous to send humans in to inspect.

"Exyn came to our site to show us the autonomous capabilities of their drone technology, and we're very impressed with the timeliness and quality of the data acquired," Ascot Resources COO John Kieran said after Exyn drones navigated and mapped partially collapsed historical mining passages at the company's Premier gold mine in Northern British Columbia in 2021.

The same state-of-the-art navigation and mapping technologies that provide a detailed view of old underground mining passages without putting people in harm's way are a game-changer when it comes to efficiently and safely mapping current underground mining operations.

"Agnico Eagle acquired Exyn drones to enhance underground mine mapping, significantly reducing hazards and minimizing production delays," Lapierre said. "This technology is particularly valuable at our remote sites, such as Meadowbank Complex and Meliadine, where GPS signals are unavailable. The fully autonomous drones are well suited for these challenging environments."

Exyn Technologies

Surveyors are able to receive real-time visualization of data captured by Exyn drones with full detail and colorization to ensure the area is completely and accurately scanned.

Nexys of innovation

The impressive autonomous navigation, mapping, and imaging capabilities of Exyn drones are an integrated system that leverages state-of-the-art lidar technology and the tech company's proprietary autonomy algorithms.

As the aerial robot uses lidar to map its surroundings, the data is incorporated into simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) algorithms, which locate the drone within the highly detailed map being created. Exyn's proprietary autonomy algorithms then allow the drone to guide itself through the environment it has digitally replicated.

Exyn's award-winning autonomous navigation and mapping technology is now encompassed within Nexys, a modular 3D mapping system introduced by the company in February. This latest rendition of Exyn surveying technology offers unmatched flexibility, speed, and accuracy for surveying and inspecting mines, construction sites, and other demanding environments.

"We are excited to introduce Exyn Nexys to the world, a testament to Exyn's dedication to leading-edge innovation and our commitment to transforming the mapping and surveying landscape," said Exyn Technologies CEO Brandon Torres Declet.

Equipped with the latest version of Exyn's software and hardware, Nexys is capable of capturing up to 1.9 million scan points per second while continuously updating the map as new data is received.

The maps created are produced at a high enough level of accuracy to be used for precision-driven underground mine surveying and mapping operations.

The point cloud data collected by Nexys is brought to life by two embedded cameras that deliver a combined 360-degree view and real-life color images of the mapped environment. Because these ruggedized cameras are embedded in the onboard software, the point cloud shapes are immediately upgraded to clearer and more detailed images of the mapped environment.

While Nexys is designed to integrate with Exyn's industry-leading autonomous drones, this cutting-edge mapping solution can be carried by hand, in a backpack, mounted to a vehicle, or on ground robots.

Exyn says this flexibility makes Nexys an essential tool for comprehensive mapping across diverse environments, from indoor and underground spaces to rugged outdoor terrains.

Exyn Technologies

Nexys colorized imagery shows details of mapped environments not possible with traditional point-cloud.

Mapping Pogo Mine

Northern Star is among the first companies to test and implement Exyn drone technology to map an underground mine.

The Australia-based mining company's interest in the use of autonomous drones for underground mine mapping began at Pogo, an Alaska gold mine that it acquired in 2018.

When Northern Star took over Pogo, the mine had been in operation for roughly 12 years. The new owner, however, was unsure about the accuracy of the previous underground surveys.

To produce highly accurate maps needed to model the high-grade gold deposits in support of an optimized mine plan for Pogo, Northern Star decided to completely resurvey the entire mine.

This resurvey from the surface and through the labyrinth of underground mine passages dug out over more than a decade would have been a massive and time-consuming endeavor with traditional survey methods.

Northern Star's search for innovative technologies that would quickly and efficiently produce highly accurate maps of the underground workings at Pogo led the mining company to Exyn and its cutting-edge drones.

"They were not entirely confident in their control points, so they were looking for an accurate, easy, and rapid way to survey this mine – that is where our technology was a great fit for them," said Jack Gentry, an Exyn Technologies field engineer that went to Pogo during the initial remapping of the mine.

Jim Coxon, the vice president of Northern Star's North America operations, said the initial Exyn drone surveys of the Pogo mine proved to be both substantially faster and more detailed than the old-school underground mine mapping methods.

Northern Star Resources Ltd.

A drone being prepared to map underground passages at Northern Star Resources Pogo mine.

"The drone is able to scan all parts of the mining void in a lot more detail, it almost seems like you are looking at a photo of the mining void," the Northern Star executive told Data Mine North in a 2022 email. "This detail provides accurate void information and allows the interpretation of geological features within the void."

And this level of detail was delivered by Exyn mapping technology that was the generation before Nexys upgrades.

Impressed with the speed and exceptional data from the initial Pogo surveys, Northern Star purchased its own Exyn drones to continue mapping the new underground passages as mining continues at Pogo.

Drones outperform CMS

Northern Star also welcomed USC Consulting group to the Pogo mine in 2022 to conduct a study that compares Exyn drone mapping technology with the cavity monitoring system (CMS) method traditionally used for underground mine surveys.

According to this side-by-side comparison, Exyn's drone-mounted mapping system lacks the limitations of traditional CMS methods, has greater capacity to detect things like gas pockets, and can collect much more accurate data in nearly half the time.

Loomes says the time comparison – 15 minutes for the Exyn survey versus 27.3 minutes for a CMS survey of the same area – does not fully reflect the time, effort, and expense it would take to generate the high-quality data delivered by Exyn drones.

"Even though [CMS] takes twice as long, from a quality standpoint to get the same data from a CMS would take even longer with more equipment ... the data doesn't even compare," he said.

Based on its observations at Pogo, USC Consulting estimates that using Exyn drones would save a mining operation roughly $2 million in direct costs over 10 years compared to traditional CMS surveys with a two-person crew. This does not include the added benefits that come from increased productivity associated with faster mapping and no need to wait for survey crews to move in and out of the active mining area.

The safety that comes with being able to survey newly mined areas from a distance is one of the biggest advantages of mapping with drones.

"It is infinitely safer to use ... we're nowhere near the brow now, doing jobs around the corner in some cases," said Loomes.

"The safety aspect is definitely one of the driving factors to why we purchased the gear," the Pogo mine surveyor added.

Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd.

In addition to underground mine mapping, Agnico Eagle uses Exyn drones to measure ore stockpiles within the Dome at its Meadowbank Complex in Nunavut.

Exyn drones surface in Nunavut

Safety also weighed in on Agnico Eagle's increased use of drones at its Meliadine and Meadowbank Complex gold mining operations in Nunavut.

"Safety is of utmost importance to us, and these drones significantly contribute to creating a safer working environment," Lapierre told Data Mine North.

The safer work environment for mine surveyors, who are working from a remote location as the drones carry out the mapping, also has the added benefit of increased productivity.

"Surveyor can work remotely, allowing underground production to continue uninterrupted during mapping," Lapierre explained. "This automated process means no workers are in hazardous areas for mapping tasks."

The mine surveyor and drone pilot said Agnico Eagle decided to acquire Exyn drones to enhance underground mine mapping, while also significantly reducing hazards and minimizing production delays.

"This technology is particularly valuable at our remote sites, such as Meadowbank Complex and Meliadine, where GPS signals are unavailable," he said. "The fully autonomous drones are well suited for these challenging environments."

As a result, Agnico Eagle is leveraging the full gamut of Exyn technologies both underground and on the surface at its Nunavut mines.

"The benefits extend beyond precise mapping: they include hazard elimination and minimal production delays," Lapierre said.

Exyn Technologies

Nexys is a modular 3D mapping system that can be carried in a backpack, mounted to a vehicle, attached to a ground robot, or flown by Exyn's state-of-the-art autonomous drones.

When all the drones are flying other missions, Agnico Eagle surveyors use a backpack-mounted version of the Exyn technology to quickly and efficiently conduct mapping on foot around the site or tailings.

To measure the stockpiles within a building at the Meadowbank Complex known as the Dome used to take around 2.5 hours with traditional surveying methods. Exyn drones can complete the Dome stockpile survey in just 15-30 minutes without fully stopping the crusher.

Lapierre believes that drones should already be an integral part of any modern mining operation and the use of these aerial robots for mapping and other tasks is only going to increase as mines continue to become more digital and autonomous.

"Looking ahead, we foresee autonomous vehicles becoming increasingly popular, with drone mapping being essential to keep these systems running," the surveyor and drone pilot said. "Over the next 5-10 years, business trends suggest that drone technology will be replicable across various industries and mapping needs."

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Publisher

Author photo

Over his more than 16 years of covering mining and mineral exploration, Shane has become renowned for his ability to report on the sector in a way that is technically sound enough to inform industry insiders while being easy to understand by a wider audience.


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