The first time that chief surveyor Alan Clayson partook in an unmanned aerial vehicle test flight over the Marigold Mine in Valmy, the drone’s camera detected a problem that would have taken employees much longer to discover manually.

“We saw a crack on the catch bench,” Clayson said.

Since that test flight, Marigold Mining Co., owned by SSR Mining, signed up with Identified Technologies to obtain a drone and receive data-processing services. In January, the company began training its staff and started to work flights into its routine at the run-of-mine heap leach operation.

“That one photograph was worth the price,” Clayson said, as the staff knew to focus monitoring on that area.

On a blue-sky day in early October, Clayson unpacked a tote containing a DJI-brand drone with four helicopter blades and coordinating equipment for a demonstration flight. A camera mounted on the craft’s carbon fiber body offers an unobstructed 360-degree view, and a lithium-ion battery powers the flight.

Such equipment can cost from $40 for a personal UAV to tens of thousands and up for commercial and military models that can be helicopter-like or fixed wing. Marigold does not pay for the equipment itself but a service including data processing and products made available after the flight through a company dedicated to fully managed commercial drone solutions.

The Federal Aviation Administration made way for the use of drones, such as the applications at Northern Nevada mines, when it updated commercial operation rules for small UAVs effective August 2016. Instead of requiring a pilot’s license, the federal government allows an operator to pass an aeronautical knowledge test to be able to fly commercially under certain restrictions.

The regulations apply to drones weighing less than 55 pounds employed outside of the hobbyist realm. Drones must stay in sight at an altitude of no higher than 400 feet above ground level, can fly only during daylight (or twilight with appropriate lighting), cannot exceed 100 mph and must yield to other aircraft. Additional regulations apply (see sidebar).

Industry estimates proposed that the rule could create more than 100,000 new jobs and add $82 billion to the U.S. economy over the next 10 years, according to an FAA news release, although the Consumer Technology Association predicted more modest growth for 2017 at 40 percent. Commercial applications apply to the agriculture, entertainment, electric utility industries and much more (see related article).

Drone-based businesses have since launched to answer the growing demand for drone equipment and services, including Pennsylvania-based Identified Technologies, which serves the Marigold Mine.

Watching the autumn flight was Identified Technologies CEO Dick Zhang, visiting the mine on a customer service call. Zhang started the business almost five years ago and got his start serving the construction industry.

“We’ve come so far. It’s so satisfying, so fulfilling,” Zhang said, explaining how his role at Marigold had morphed from trainer to spectator, and that his company is on the brink of a partnership with a major mining company in Northern Nevada.

Nick Potter, an ore control geologist, assisted Clayson for the demo. Joining them were Julio Piñero, senior geotechnical geologist, and Luis Fernandez, process foreman.

The team explained that before any flight, they must follow certain steps, including creating a flight plan, uploading it onto a flight tablet, such as an iPad, calibrating the equipment and announcing the flight over the radio. Before that, the pilot had to get certified.

“We have not put Alan out of the job,” Zhang said, explaining that drones must have a pilot.

Clayton and another employee earned their remote pilot certifications through the FAA by completing an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-certified testing center. Marigold staff said they could have another person certified by the end of the year.

After the startup protocol, everyone stood back while Clayson launched the craft. It ascended with a buzzing sound like a mob of mosquitoes and stirred a low cloud of dust. Soon, the small flyer was a mere speck in the sky.

“Excellent,” Zhang said as it flew. “I live for these moments.”

The drone automatically followed a line pattern according to the flight plan and captured data for about 14 minutes while Clayson monitored the object and tablet.

“Most of the magic of the process is after the flight,” Zhang said.

Later in the process engineer’s office, Fernandez logged onto his computer to compare the data to a paper map. Data upload and processing takes about a half a day, Piñero said.

“We take action based on the aerial photos we take there,” Fernandez said.

At Marigold, the technology is used mainly for making topographic maps for reports and audits, and slope monitoring and high-wall mapping; taking detailed aerial photos of leach pads for solution application management; and inspecting slopes and high-walls in areas with limited access to search for tension cracks, settling and bench integrity.

Piñero said future uses could include providing power infrastructure inspections, and creating multispectral and thermal maps to improve solution application management and detect hot spots in equipment.

The technology helps save the company manpower and money.

“With traditional methods, it took 20 hours of surveying and processing labor to obtain a detailed survey of a specific section of the mine site,” Identified Technologies stated in a press release. “Using Identified Technologies’ drone solution, the same results were achieved with [one] hour of work. This has allowed SSR to increase speed and productivity, without increasing staffing costs and headcount, while decreasing the frequency of its full site flyovers.”

Large mining companies including Barrick Gold Corp. and Newmont Mining Corp. also have tapped the technology.

Obtaining data for exploration planning, conducting inspections and gathering data on blasts for fragmentation studies are some of the ways that Newmont puts several drones into action across multiple properties.

“Drone use at Newmont is in the early stages, but the company is currently looking into other ways to use the innovative technology to our advantage,” said Natacia Eldridge, external relations representative in an email.

A recent project featured flying a drone for an internal inspection of a spray dryer assembly at its TS Power Plant in Eureka County. Without having to install or remove scaffolding, the drone can access the 90-foot tall, 30-foot diameter assembly to inspect internal surfaces and seam welds for excessive erosion.

“Additionally, using the drone cuts the inspection time down and provides a cost savings of approximately $20,000 annually,” Eldridge said.

To stay in compliance with state and federal legal requirements for drone operation, Eldridge explained that “Newmont actively monitors the legal requirements and works with our employees and contractors to ensure compliance through means such as training and education.”

For the Barrick Nevada operations, including the Goldstrike, Turquoise Ridge and Cortez mines, using drones is also just plain fun, said Ben McKnight, chief surveyor stationed at Goldstrike.

“My wife jokes that I come to work to play with the toys I can’t afford at home,” he said. “It’s definitely the most enjoyable part of my job.”

Beyond being fun, McKnight described how the company has been experimenting with or using drones to reduce costs, save time and keep people safer since 2010 — with brief pauses to ensure that staff kept up with changing regulations.

The team has five surveyors capable of operating drones, and four of them have their pilot’s licenses, as was required before the regulation change in 2016. Another staff member received certification over the past year, and three more are studying for their exams.

“We have adopted this pretty heavily, and to date, we have not reduced the manpower in the survey group at all,” McKnight said, explaining that employees have “less field time and more time in the office making the data more applicable to mining.”

The technology allows the survey team to increase the efficiency and accuracy of tasks. Barrick uses drones to measure volumes of features such as stockpiles, ensure design conformance with engineering plans, track disturbances to report to the Bureau of Land Management, monitor wildlife habitat, investigate accident scenes, conduct drone inspections and create safety videos. The company also is beginning to conduct thermal work to inspect components such as piping and tanks in process areas.

Barrick Nevada owns two types of the aircraft, McKnight said: the Lockheed Martin Procerus Technologies Indago quadrotor, which costs about $50,000 and is used on industrial-scale photogrammetry projects; and the DJI drone, which ranges from $3,000-$5,000 and is used for smaller projects.

“We just get a lot of stuff done that we physically couldn’t do before,” McKnight said. “The accessibility and sharability of data is greatly improved.”

The mining company used to process its own data, but because a single project could map 1,100 acres in a day and generate a 1.5 terabytes of data, McKnight said, Barrick takes advantage of third-party processing and storage. The software processes data quickly, features analytical tools and makes the information available on a web portal.

“It allows us more time to fly more areas and gather more data and be that much more efficient in our operations,” McKnight said.

Streamlining ultimately saves Barrick money. McKnight described how a manned aircraft doing a survey would require a week of lead time, aircraft deployment, two people in a plane, cameras and a week of data processing. With a drone, the same task can be completed with data delivered to the end user in a single day. Flying a manned aircraft costs $150-$200 per acre, McKnight said, whereas the drone flies for $2 an acre.

Reflecting on how his job in the survey department has changed over the past 17 years, McKnight said, “This has been the biggest leap in technology to make us more efficient and make the mine run safer and cheaper.”

Miners at the Kinross Gold Corp. Bald Mountain Mine are discovering many of the same benefits and exploring additional options with drones.

“Industry in general has barely scratched the surface of what those things are capable of,” said Thomas Fedel, senior mine engineer, a Colorado School of Mines graduate and fourth-generation miner.

Since bringing drones on the heap leach run-of-mine operation in August, the Kinross team is continually discovering how the device’s capabilities apply to their operations. The immediate application was in surveying, but Fedel said that people in nearly every department – including environmental and blasting – has offered ideas about how to put the drone to use.

The primary reason for bringing a drone onboard, however, was increasing the safety of Kinross’ surveyors. Flying reduces the amount of time that staff must work in potentially dangerous situations, such as around tripping hazards and falling rocks.

“It’s to mitigate a risk,” Fedel said. “This is the equivalent of engineering out a risk.”

Kinross works with Kespry, a UAV company out of San Francisco, to lease a drone and subscribe to services including unlimited data storage and backup on the Kespry Cloud. Kespry produces parts of its drones, including the outer shell, in-house with a 3-D printer then automatically sends updated models. The UAV company also provided ground-school training for Kinross employees to facilitate the certification process.

“It’s all managed extremely well,” Fedel said. “It’s just simplifying the process.”

Chief surveyor Brad Nicholes, with 28 years of experience, and surveyors Derek Brown and Tanner Church passed their FAA tests in Salt Lake City this year.

“Those three guys are really driving that program for us and getting it up to Kinross standards on all fronts,” Fedel said. “They’ve really taken charge of this piece of equipment and are doing it safely and buying into it.”

Kinross expects to have three more drone pilots certified soon. The increase in employees getting drone training shows that the technology is not replacing humans, although the job duties might change.

“In no way did we bring this technology to displace anybody,” Fedel said.

Nicholes added that the human element is still necessary to not only pilot the drones but also to complete tasks that the machine still cannot accomplish.

“You still have to do stakeouts … so we are not afraid for our jobs,” he said.

On Oct. 30, the surveying trio put their training to work for a drone flight launched near the Top 2 open pit. Based on preprogrammed parameters, the quad copter (chosen over fixed-wing designs for its takeoff and landing abilities) automatically followed a line pattern covering 43 acres in 21 minutes while a 20 megapixel Sony camera captured images. The equipment communicates via radio and Wi-Fi. Once processed, data can be exported from the cloud in myriad formats.

Under perfect conditions, the drone can fly on its lithium-ion battery for about 30 minutes and cover about 150 acres. It will return automatically in adverse weather.

“The time savings here is all the detail you can pick up at once,” Nicholes said.

Fedel agreed, adding that the data-processing service also increases accuracy, as surveyors no longer have to manually input their findings.

“It totally eliminates the post-process loss,” Fedel said.

In addition to surveying, Kinross has applied the speed and accuracy of drone operations to optimize mine planning and conduct environmental monitoring. The team flies weekly over active areas.

Future uses could include the more in-depth environmental flights to track stock piles, disturbances and acreage, Fedel said. The mine staff is required to gather such data annually, but a drone could enable Kinross to do more frequent observations to keep records up to date.

“The uses of this thing run the gamut across all aspects of our mine,” Fedel said. “It’s fun to see where we can save time and money.”

Clarification: This article has been changed to indicate that parts of Kespry's drones are 3-D printed.