In Resource-Rich Australia, Wedgetail Aerospace’s New Mining Drones Are Preparing to Break the Mold

Mining companies in Australia, like mining companies everywhere, have grown accustomed to deploying drones to conduct aerial surveys to find new sources of ore and to maintain mine and workplace safety.  In fact, mining drones were some of the first to be deployed for commercial purposes anywhere in the world. Due to their specialized functions, most are relatively small aircraft.  Their ability to navigate inside a mine or in the face of numerous physical obstacles places a premium on being lightweight and highly maneuverable vehicles. Some may carry special thermal sensors and zoom cameras but their payloads overall tend to be fairly modest.

Not so with the new fleet of mining drones being manufactured by the Schiebel Corporation for purchase and use by Wedgetail Aerospace.  Wedgetail just received Australia’s first Civil Aviation Safety Authority approval to operate large-scale drones in commercial airspace.  What makes these drones different is not just their size but also their diversity of functions.  These aren’t just surveillance drones but also cargo aircraft, some capable of carrying industrial spare parts and other materials weighing as much as 130 pounds.  The drones can also fly continuously for up to 325 miles, which is ideal for the long distances that typify the Australian outback or for shore-to-ship operations that increasingly typify the country’s burgeoning commercial shipping and off-shore energy sectors.

Wedetail’s drones will continue to perform the critical aerial survey and inspection missions that provide enormous cost and safety benefits to the mining sector.  Drones can monitor equipment temperature using thermal imagery and remote data collection.  Blast technicians and engineers need not perform the same tasks, risking exposure to extreme heat as well as the danger posed by mine voids and chasms.  Indoor drones can scope out a mine shaft, assessing potential structural weaknesses as well as estimating the size of their stopes and collecting data on available ore.  In the event of a catastrophic emergency, drones can provide the vital intelligence needed to facilitate a successful rescue.

For long distance cargo deliveries, drones also have the advantage of being faster and cheaper — and more sustainable.  Gas-powered helicopters are expensive to pilot and also burn fuel.  Road vehicles often encounter obstacles, especially in remote areas, due to topography and weather.  Drones can also travel more safely at night.  If a drone goes down, no human life is lost.  And drones flying at high altitudes are less likely to injure wildlife or disturb their mating and breeding patterns – a major concern where some species are endangered

Wedgetail officials say they’re not yet ready to deploy their new drones, which includes the company’s flagship S-100 cargo drone, which is about 10 feet long and utilizes a single large overhead rotary propeller.  Viewed from the ground, the craft looks more like a small sleek windowless helicopter than a drone quadcopter or hexacopter.  The S-100 also is built to land on flat surfaces, and to be offloaded by hand, rather than to over and release its cargo automatically using tether cable, as many small retail delivery drones do.

The need for a new line of larger cargo drones, especially geared to mining in resource-rich western Australia, is undeniable.  The state has the world’s largest share of iron ore reserves (29%) and the mining industry is booming, with a 26% increase since 2017.  Oil and gas and secondary metals including nickel and lead also account for a critical share of the state’s exports, primarily to China and Japan.  Most of Australia’s natural gas is processed offshore, and transported via pipelines to the Australian interior.  The need for drone cargo deliveries and inspections is also increasingly important in the petroleum sector, industry experts say.

Wedgetail plans to spend the new years researching the full array of operational needs for drones in western Australia before launching on the road to commercialization.  Its current regulatory authority allows for demonstration projects, which will commence later this year.  Additional regulatory approval of specific drone prototype designs and their conformity with the nation’s flight, fuel efficiency and environmental guidelines will be needed before the company can begin moving toward mass production.  The company is also soliciting partnership agreements with suppliers in the state’s mining and petroleum sectors.

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