Kumba Iron Ore seeing the benefits of drone use at Sishen mine

After two years of working through complex legal, governance and logistical challenges to earn an operating licence to fly its own remotely piloted drones, Kumba Iron Ore is making the most of these high-tech machines at its Sishen iron ore mine in South Africa.

Bongi Ntsoelengoe, Technology Manager at Kumba Iron Ore (an Anglo American subsidiary), says the drones have optimised surveying processes in terms of time and coverage, including being able to gain 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 having put anyone at risk,” he said.

The company has recently used the drones to conduct engineering inspections for hard to access equipment, dramatically reducing safety risk. They can also be used to survey accident scenes and areas deemed unsafe for workers to enter.

Glen Mc Gavigan, Executive Head of Technical and Projects at Kumba, said the new drones had enabled the company to collect and process much more data than in the past, which was “pushing innovation mine-wide as data management processes are enhanced to ensure that other functional areas also benefit from the technology”.

Various subsidiaries of Anglo American have been using drones at their operations since late-2015, but have leased the units and, thus, been reliant on outside service providers. The licence to operate its own drones – with its own pilots and at heights of up to 1,000 feet (305 metres) above ground – is, Kumba says, the result of diligent groundwork and millions of rands worth of investment.

Kumba’s majority-owned Sishen iron ore mine, in the Northern Cape province, produced 31.1 million tonnes of high-grade ore last year.

So far, five employees have been trained to pilot the drones, all of whom are licensed by the SA Civil Aviation Authority to use the technology.

Anglo American has also established new working practices, such as scheduling flights, flight navigation and craft maintenance to make the most of these drones.