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Kumba secures drone licence to boost mine safety

A UAV in the mining industry.A multimillion-rand investment in drone technology has paid off for mining company Kumba Iron Ore as it is now licensed to fly its own remotely piloted drones.

The Anglo American subsidiary has announced that, after working through an intense two-year accreditation process, it is now able to self-operate the drones for efficient collection and processing of data.

Since 2015, various subsidiaries of the Anglo American group, including Kumba Iron Ore, have used drones at their operations through lease agreements from third-party service providers.

The drones, which feature on-board cameras and laser scanners, are used to conduct aerial surveys and collect data through three-dimensional images.

Last year, Anglo announced it had made a three-year, R500 million investment (of which R6 million was allocated to Kumba) in technology, including using drones for aerial surveys and remote-controlled drills.

Safety first

Bongi Ntsoelengoe, technology manager at Kumba Iron Ore, explained that the ability to use drones at its operations has optimised surveying processes in terms of time and coverage, and has given them access to constricted areas.

"Routine tasks historically carried out by surveyors, such as measuring the volume of waste dumps and stockpiles, are now being done by our drones. The drones collect digital imagery that is pieced together to perform volume calculations, giving us reliable data without putting anyone at risk."

She adds: "This licence allows us to operate our own drones, with our own pilots, at heights of up to 1 000 feet. We worked through two years of complex legal, governance and logistical challenges to earn an operating licence to fly our remotely piloted aircraft systems and the technology is already proving a game-changer at our Sishen mine.

"So far, five staff members have been trained to pilot the drones, and they're licensed by the SA Civil Aviation Authority to use the technology. All this is a direct result of diligent groundwork and millions of rands worth of investment."

Glen McGavigan, executive head of technical and projects at Kumba Iron Ore, said the drones will also be used to survey accident scenes and areas that could be unsafe for workers.

"Using drones eliminates employees' exposure to potential dangers, especially when compared to the old conventional survey methods."

Strategic investment

According to a recent report by research firm IDC, global drone spending will reach $9 billion in 2018, and is expected to grow at a five-year compound annual growth rate of 29.8%.

"Enterprise drone solutions will deliver more than half of all drone spending throughout the forecast period, with the balance coming from consumer drone solutions. The utilities and construction industries will see the largest drone spending in 2018 ($912 million and $824 million, respectively), followed by the process and discrete manufacturing industries," revealed the report.

Kumba Iron Ore CEO Themba Mkhwanazi said the development was part of the company's strategy to improve productivity.

"The realisation of appropriate pricing for the company's high-quality products is a very compelling lever to generate attractive returns with low risk for shareholders. The core focus for the coming years will therefore be to step up these initiatives from current levels, supported by the operating model and technology improvements, in order to realise the full potential of the assets, provide confidence in delivery and enhance profitability."

Mkhwanazi adds Anglo will also establish new working practices, such as scheduling flights, flight navigation and craft maintenance. "As skill sets go, these are new to the Anglo American Group, and the company is looking forward to developing new skills as drone technology evolves," he noted.

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