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The Evolution of Data Capture and Analysis for Highwall Mining

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Highwall mine analysis has come a long way, but progress didn’t happen overnight. For decades, accurately assessing slope stability and other highwall characteristics has been challenging, expensive and dangerous.

As technology continues to evolve, the tools used by highwall mining operations have advanced as well, gradually leading to more efficient and precise highwall analysis practices. Today, drone-based highwall scanning technology provides operators unprecedented insight into essential geological and geotechnical attributes of mining terrain, including the position of coal seams and mining faults, fault persistence, the distribution of rock units, and other characteristics.

Technology as a whole is contributing to safer, more cost-effective, and more highly evolved highwall mining practices. And that innovation is only going to continue.

A Brief History of Highwall Analysis

Not too long ago, geologists and geotechnical engineers captured highwall data by hand. Not only was this a time-consuming process, but it was also dangerous. Around the turn of the century, slope instability accidents were among the leading causes of U.S. surface mining operation fatalities, meaning some teams had to collect mining data at a distance. While safer, information collected in this way was often less reliable.

When laser scanners became widely available, they allowed mining operations to digitally capture highwall data, mitigating some of the risks associated with the manual approach. But the introduction of laser scanning in mining arrived with a host of new issues.

For starters, lasers are generally expensive to buy and operate. To take advantage of laser scanning technology, companies must develop or invest in personnel with specialized skills that are hard to find. And while lasers can certainly collect some relevant information, they often leave shadows and blank spots in the point cloud, leading to an incomplete assessment of the terrain in question.

Moreover, because laser monitoring requires someone to operate the laser close to the walls, only relatively small sections of the wall can be analyzed at one time, and the safety risk is still present. Fortunately, we're seeing new drone-based scanning solutions emerge that allow operators to overcome these persistent challenges.

A Better Way to Collect Mining Data

The emergence of drone technology has perhaps transformed mining industry data analytics more than any other. Drones eliminate safety risks and enable data capture to take place more regularly, while also increasing the amount of accessible area that can be analyzed. And the technology is still evolving.

The first generation of drones didn’t always provide accurate data, nor the hi-resolution outputs that firms need to make critical operating decisions with confidence. The textured meshes these drones produced were not always geo-referenced and rarely sufficient for taking structural measurements of sub-bench scale features. To compensate, survey teams placed ground control points (GCPs) on highwall benches to generate accurate data. Still, these are often difficult to keep track of and reintroduce unacceptable safety risks.

The newest generation of drone-based mining solutions from Skycatch includes the Advanced Highwall Scanning package — which changes all of that. With the Skycatch Flight1 automated flight-planning application for highwall scanning, operators can capture the data required to get hi-resolution output of large photogrammetry datasets through proprietary processing technology. They can process and manage that data in the cloud or on-prem.

Real-time kinematic (RTK) drones like DJI P4RTK and M210RTK, used in conjunction with the Skycatch Edge1 smart base station, enable geo-referenced photo datasets that are accurate down to 5 centimeters or less. Used in conjunction with the advanced highwall scanning technology from Skycatch, surveyors create extremely accurate, hi-resolution point clouds and 3D models. Today, surface mine surveyors, geologists, and geotechnical engineers, from top mining companies around the world use these tools. Discover more on how it works

Seeing What’s Possible

Skycatch is making highwall monitoring safer and more efficient, while improving information accuracy and reliability. This is allowing the industry to take a giant leap forward, as improved drone capture technology opens up an array of opportunities for the geologists and geotechnical engineers who rely on highwall scanning to identify rock types and mineral resources in addition to assessing terrain stability.

When surveyors — typically in high demand at mining sites — use drones to capture high precision, high fidelity images, a major operational bottleneck evaporates. As a result, companies can spend more time on data analysis and other critical functions to keep their operations efficient and safe. 

While aerial 3D scanning already presents numerous benefits, these will be further magnified with additional analysis tools. Presently, Skycatch Data Hub allows users to quickly view and perform various measurements and analyses including slope analysis and measurements, cut and fill analysis, comparisons to plan and more. These point clouds can also be uploaded to other mining data software such as MapTek PointStudio and Hexagon Minesight for even deeper analysis by geologists and geotechnical engineers.

Preparing for the Future of Mining Automation

Because highwall monitoring and analysis are so critical to highwall mining, there’s a growing demand for technologies that make it easier and less cost-intensive. At present, Skycatch’s technology allows a team conducting a highwall assessment with a drone to finish the job 10 times faster than a team using laser scanning and significantly faster than manual mapping.

In a recent webinar, Sean Gibson, Survey and Engineering Technician at Teck Resources outlined considerations for effectively implementing drone-based data capture of highwalls. You can learn more here:

Are you looking for a better way to conduct critical highwall assessments? Skycatch can help! Fill out this form, and we’ll help you find the solution that best fits your specific needs.