Drone and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) usage in the mining and resources industry is really taking off. Australian Certified UAV Operators secretary Brad Mason shares everything you need to know to become an operator.
Australia has a rich history of drones going back to the 1940s with the highly successful development of the Jindivik target drones, but the market for commercial unmanned aviation in Australia appears to have been on the cusp of an impending revolution since the 1970s. It has only been in the last 15-20 years that the real commercialisation has been underway, and less than five years of the current boom in drones.
The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) promulgated the world’s first civil aviation safety regulations for UAVs in July 2001 and just four months later we had our first certified commercial UAV Operator. Since then more than 300 commercial UAV operators have been certified by CASA, the large majority of them only in the last three years. Less than 5 per cent of the certified UAV operators can boast more than five years commercial experience in UAV operations.
Much of the staggering growth in unmanned aviation can be attributed to recent technological advances – the lithium batteries that power many of these aircraft today, the computers and processing power to fly them via palm-sized autopilots, the GPS systems to guide them, the wireless radio communications systems with which to command them, and the digital imaging systems they are primarily designed to carry.
All these technologies and more seemed to meld at just the right time, so we can now mass-produce myriad small flying cameras with more than 600 applications so far identified by industry.
RIo Tinto executive of Technology and Innovation
Why are drones becoming more commonly used in the mining industry and how are they beneficial?
We see immense potential for drones to help extend the advantage Rio Tinto holds through the innovative use of technology, to improve the safety and productivity of our operations. Information will be the single biggest differentiating factor between the mining operations of the past and those in the future, and drones can produce a wealth of information to allow us to make better decisions.
What are drones in the resources sector being used for?
Anyone can buy a drone and they’re easy to operate, but the trick is having the best minds working out what you do with them. We’re constantly thinking outside the box to imagine how they can be integrated into our mining operations to make complex tasks safer, quicker and cheaper, as well as working with regulators to meet their requirements.
We’re already using drones to monitor our sites and inspect equipment, tasks that have traditionally presented safety risks for our people, taken up time and disrupted our operations.
Other innovative uses we are finding include tasks like monitoring remote turtle nesting sites and spraying weeds as part of our environmental programs.
What future uses to do you see for drones in the mining sector?
Some of the future uses we can already see include monitoring geotechnical issues in difficult to access areas and inspecting vast stretches of infrastructure like power and rail lines, and we’re sure there will be many more.
It will take time to educate our way forward into more ambitious and more ubiquitous operations within society. The future of drone deliveries is one such application eagerly awaiting further technical and regulatory developments before it becomes a safe reality.
In the interim, CASA is approving limited commercial operations under the following conditions:
- Daylight Visual Meteorological Conditions (Day VMC)
- Visual Line Of Sight (VLOS) operations only
- Not above 400ft AGL
- Not in controlled airspace
- Not with 3nm (5.5km) of an aerodrome, airport or helipad
- Not over populous areas
- Not within 30m of people – not associated with the operation
CASA permits many immediately useful applications, such as aerial photography and cinematography, aerial surveying, mapping, asset monitoring and civil engineering developments across numerous industries, not just mining and energy. Even agricultural spraying can now be approved by drones.
Highly restricted UAV operations are being approved by CASA beyond the limited operating conditions listed above, but wider restrictions will persist until:
- we can resolve the inherent collision risks with manned aircraft operations;
- new regulations can be developed to encompass them safely in the national airspace, and;
- we can trust the reliability of these systems not to fall out of the sky and pose an unacceptable risk to the public (as they are prone to do still without warning).
Contrary to what some people have been led to believe already, the operation of all UAVs for hire and reward in Australia requires formal certification from CASA, regardless of UAV size, and there are two certificates required.
The first is the personal certificate called a UAV Controller Certificate. The second is the business certificate called a UAV Operator Certificate (UOC). If you don’t hold these two certificates and you are operating a UAV for purposes other than sport or recreation, you are operating illegally and could be subject to fines of up to $9000.
To obtain the personal UAV Controller Certificate, you are required to pass a formal course of basic RPAS training at level one (Visual Line Of Sight) and this can normally be completed in one to two weeks full-time. The CASA list of certified UAV Operators also contains the certified RPAS training organisations.
Once the personal certificate is obtained, you are eligible to operate specified UAVs commercially, either for someone who already holds a UAV Operator Certificate, or you can apply to CASA for a UAV Operator Certificate yourself. There is no formal training for the business certificate. Once you have successfully passed the basic RPAS training you will have acquired the fundamental aviation knowledge and skills to make your application to CASA for the UOC, but this should not be undertaken lightly.
Along with the formal application to CASA it is incumbent on applicants to develop an operations manual, which details exactly how you propose to operate your drones and risk manage your flight operations. Once your application is processed you will also be expected to demonstrate how you operate your drones safely in the national airspace.
WHY IS ALL THIS NECESSARY?
This is CASA’s safety oversight, and certification is a critical element of aviation and public safety.
It has to be accepted – a small drone of a similar size and weight to a medium-sized bird has the potential to bring down an aircraft if operated negligently or naively in that same airspace. We all saw what happened on the Hudson River in New York a couple of years ago as a result of ducks being ingested into the aircraft engines on take-off. It was a very lucky escape for all onboard.
Just because a drone is small and light doesn’t mean there is no risk to other aircraft in that same airspace. As such, a remote pilot must abide by the same aviation rules and regulations as any manned pilot. This includes documented and demonstrated procedures for operating your remotely piloted aircraft safely in the national airspace.
Surveyors and mining companies have been quick to see the benefits of drones to their business bottom-line and have raced to certification in the last 12-18 months. In addition to the obvious safeguards with not having to put people aloft and on rope-access, there are significant cost-savings in new RPAS data capture, and much quicker turn around times.
In many instances the data can be captured, processed, verified and delivered in the same day, providing for the most efficient and cost-effective of operations. Many of the large surveying companies and survey equipment suppliers have secured valuable market share already. At least eight well-known corporations are now CASA-certified to operate drones commercially across mining and resources, telecommunications and civil engineering sectors.
There are also more than 10 federal or state government agencies or departments certified to operate drones too, including the AFP, the Commonwealth Department of Environment and one or more branches of the police force in most states.
Mature certified UAV operators, such as Airmap3D, Arvista, Australian UAV, Synergy Positioning Systems, and HELImetrex, have been servicing the mining and energy sector for years with accurate data for volumetric surveys, engineering design and planning, mapping and a host of related applications including infrastructure inspections.
More specific tasks, often value-added to operator contracts, can include multi-spectral imaging for rehabilitation works, thermal imaging coal stockpiles for hot-spots, and critical asset inspections without expensive shutdowns.
In many applications RPAS are alleviating timely and costly rope-access, increasing safety and minimising downtime, but it isn’t always positive.
One of the more challenging realities of commercial UAV operations is bird strikes and in particular, eagle strikes. There is no escaping the territorial traits of the eagles but some rather unconventional methods have been found to ‘treat’ this problem, such as painting eyes on the UAV to resemble a large (and equally predatory) bird itself.
Drones are here to stay, of that there is no doubt, but how they evolve and become the ubiquitous tool for an increasing number of industries, is still being developed. There will be a great deal of debate about the merits (or not) of the regulatory reform process, allowing greater freedom for drone operations in the future and just how all that can be developed safely and with the least amount of adverse impact.
As the peak industry body for the commercial sector of unmanned aviation in Australia, ACUO is committed to building integrity in an industry of professional commercial UAV operators, and safeguarding the industry from poor judgements, illegal operators and onerous regulations. With unity comes strength in numbers and a stronger voice for commercial drone operators, now and into the future.
“Just because a drone is small and light doesn’t mean there is no risk to other aircraft in that same airspace. As such, a remote pilot must abide by the same aviation rules and regulations as any manned pilot.”
To become a member of the association of Australian Certified UAV Operators Inc (ACUO), or would like further information about the industry or this association, please visit www.acuo.org.au.
For a full list of the CASA certified UAV Operators visit the CASA website: www.casa.gov.au/operations/standard-page/list-uas-operator-certificate-holders.
For a detailed explanation on UAV conditions and regulations, please refer to the ACUO website: www.acuo.org.au/industry-information/what-the-regulations-say/.
Brad was the first CASA certified UAV Operator in November, 2002, as co-founder of HELImetrex. Brad is also a founding member and secretary of the Australian Certified UAV Operators in 2009.
He is a UAV maintenance controller and chief UAV controller with more than a decade of commercial operating experience, as well as an RPAS instructor and a consultant on RPAS in business.