What does it mean to be a Free Miner?

What does it mean to be a Free Miner?

In British Columbia it is necessary to hold a Free Miner’s Certificate (or FMC for short) to buy and sell mining claims. Most miners, prospectors and industry professionals hold an FMC but do they know what it stands for? The concept of the Free Miner holds historical roots dating back to medieval Europe where being a free miner meant a certain status and freedom during a time when freedom was reserved for a select few.

Free Miner Certificate

Mining law in BC dates back to before British Columbia even existed. Few British Columbians actually know the history and genesis of this beautiful province. We talk about the fur traders and explorers like Simon Fraser, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and David Thompson. To this day they are credited with “discovering” BC. Their names are on our streets, our rivers, and countless monuments around the province.

The early explorers definitely laid the groundwork for things to come but it wasn’t until word got out about a peculiar yellow metal that things really got rolling. Once word reached California about gold in the Fraser Canyon the rush was on. Modern-day BC consisted of a disputed territory called New Caledonia during the time of the gold rush.

The mining law in BC was modeled after regulations in other British colonies such as Australia and New Zealand. The underlying principles of our mining laws date back to medieval Europe with a history dating all the way to the Roman Empire.

Beginnings of the Free Miner

medieval miner

Work in mines during the time of the Greek and Roman empires was primarily conducted by slaves and prisoners. The Romans were producing gold and silver coins used as currency and required more precious metals than were being produced by traditional mines. During the reign of Emperor Charlemagne (768-814) the demand for gold and silver increased. The easily exploitable deposits were beginning to run out and there was a need for specialized mining skills and knowledge.

The Romans recognized the prospecting skills that miners possessed and began to allow slaves and peasants the freedom to explore. The Romans created the right to ownership based on discovery where if a man discovered a mineral deposit he could claim ownership. It was required that he pay a royalty or tribute to the emperor. Through this process, the miner ceased to be a serf and became a free man.

The incentive of freedom drove men to the farthest reaches of the Roman empire in search of metals and subsequently their own freedom. The adventurers taking part in the gold rushes of the 1800s in North America were driven by the same force, to find freedom and wealth on their own terms. The right to discovery has always been one of the core tenents of the free miner system.

Medieval Europe

mining in medieval europe

During the middle ages land was owned outright by lords. Lords were subject to the king but they decided what would and wouldn’t happen on their land. The land was worked by peasants who owed a certain amount of workdays to the lord. In exchange, peasants could use small portions of land to produce their own food. Peasants were subject to the rules and taxes of the lord whose land they occupied.

A peasant couldn’t just take off and go looking around the mountains for gold. He would have to cross into different lands that are owned by different lords. Not to mention he was obligated to work for his lord and nobody else. It would be hard to prospect for minerals if you are tied to a very small plot of land.

Across much of central Europe, free miners were allowed to roam freely across land boundaries of land-holding lords and claim and work the deposits that they found. Since miners possessed the necessary skills and knowledge to exploit subsurface mineral deposits they were always welcomed by local authorities.

The free miner who made a discovery would be awarded a double-sized discovery claim along the vein. Later miners would only be allotted a single claim. In medieval Europe, a claim was called a “meer”. The head meer belonged to the miner who discovered the vein and all other meers were measured off of the head one. This practice continued well into the gold rushes of North America. A medieval free miner would typically not be required to pay for the registration of a claim, the royalty was enough.

Free miners in Germany and Austria developed a system of democracy that was independent of the king, government or lords of their time. In each mining district, the miners got together and elected a “Bergmeister”. The Bergmeister acted much like the gold commissioner in more modern times. He would determine the size of a claim that is to be awarded upon discovery, settle disputes about claims and so on. If the miners weren’t happy with the Bergmeister they would replace him with a more competent one. There is a ton of information of the systems and techniques of mining in the middle ages in an old book called “De Re Metallica”, published in 1556. The title is Latin for “On the Nature of Metals”.

The rules, laws, and practices of free mining communities were brought to England before the invasion by the Normans in 1066. There were several distinct free mining districts in medieval England. Districts were built around a specific commodity such as tin, coal, lead, zinc, and gold. A miner could explore anywhere in his claim regardless of land ownership. A claim was permanent, transferable and heritable as long as he kept up the required work obligations and paid the required royalty.

One of the first written laws regarding free miner’s rights was passed by the Bishop of Trent (modern-day Italy) in 1185. Under that law, the state held all mineral rights. Miners were permitted to freely enter the land to explore and mine provided that they shared the wealth with the state.

Miner’s Law

miners meeting

Free miners typically had immunity from the jurisdiction of the surface owner’s courts and had immunity to common-law. Different lords had different laws, different taxes and so on. Since free miners could roam freely, crossing different land boundaries they needed their own set of laws to provide some sense of continuity. Free mining districts had free miners’ courts which were controlled by the mining community. The concept of miner’s law lasted for centuries and even played a role in the gold rushes of Western North America from California to the Yukon.

Across medieval Europe, there were two main types of free miners. In more populated areas such as Southern England, the free miner system was community-based. Free mining communities existed where miners belonged to a self-governing community outside of the feudal hierarchy. In these areas, miners would work a claim in close proximity to other miners for decades and sometimes even passing on their claim to their descendants.

In the mountainous areas such as Northern England, Scotland, Germany, and Austria claims were spread out and miners would act more individually. In these areas, it was important for a free miner to be able to explore vast areas without being bound by individual landowners.

Both systems influenced the development of mining rights during the gold rush periods and many of the concepts still exist today. A free miner today in BC still has the right to roam freely in search of untapped mineral deposits, although there are a few limitations.

A free miner’s claim was not a standard amount of surface areas such as an acre, hectare or anything like that. The area that a miner was given depended on the strike and dip of their vein. A standard claim was 100 feet along the vein and a width of half the length. The strike of the claim was measured from the apex (outcrop) and could slope downward or lie flat with the land.

A steeper dipping vein would provide a smaller surface area for the claim. Free miners measured claims this way since a steeper dipping vein provided more ore per the same amount of area.

Since the amount of ore was the whole point, this system was considered fairer among free mining communities. This concept followed European settlers into the New World. During the homestead period of Western Canada and the United States settlers were given a predetermined amount of land while miners were given more freedom depending on the geology.

Property during medieval Europe was controlled by feudal lords. Many landowners had large swaths of land under their control and needed information about the geology and mineral deposits on their lands. Free miners were able to develop knowledge of geology due to their right to wander without concern for legal boundaries with large districts.

Medieval Lords commonly permitted free miners to operate on their lands in exchange for mining and geological information. Much as we do today with work and assessment reports as part of the upkeep of modern claims.

The California Gold Rush

california gold rush

At the onset of the California Gold Rush in 1848, the territory of California was only recently transferred to the United States from Mexico. Congress had not yet set up any kind of local government and there were no laws in place to govern the practice of mining. The 49ers were literally left to their own devices.

Each camp developed its own set of rules. Across all districts, miners asserted a universal right to free prospecting and mining on previously unclaimed lands. They developed systems for dealing with staking, noticing, acquiring and abandonment of claims. They dealt swiftly with proven claim jumpers. There were no royalties paid to any government but fees were collected to fund the local miner’s collective. They imposed a rule of one claim per man and work requirements. They also had a rule that allowed no more than one-week absence or your claim would be forfeited.

As discoveries slowed down in the California gold fields prospectors moved to other areas such as Australia, Colorado, Oregon, the Fraser River, Cariboo, and the Yukon. The principles developed in the California camp laws carried with them but had to be adjusted since the new districts actually had governments and laws while California didn’t enact actual public laws until two years after the first gold miners arrived.

The Australian Gold Rush

When the gold rush broke out in Australia in 1851 miners were shocked to find that New South Wales already had a government, property law, courts, military and police. That was a big difference from the wild west of the lawless California gold fields. There were some major conflicts as Australia tried to impose land restrictions, fees and various other rules on the miners.

In the end, a compromise was made and Australia’s Gold Fields Act was passed in 1854. That piece of legislation was based on the European principles of free mining and the lessons learned in the California gold fields. The act protected the miner’s right to free entry, the right to discovery, a personal right to the minerals in place, the right to occupy the claim and a right to participate in the making of local mining rules.

The Fraser River Gold Rush

Fraser river gold rush

With the influx of 30,000 prospectors, mostly American, the British population of 100-200 people was completely overwhelmed. Britain’s claim to present-day BC was under threat.

With the madness of the California gold rush fresh in people’s minds, the young government had to act quickly. HBC Governor James Douglas stationed a gunboat on the Fraser River to intercept gold rush miners to collect mining licenses and lay down the law. Great Britain acted quickly to make BC a crown colony on August 2, 1858.

It was the gold rush, not fur trading that really made BC part of the British Empire and subsequently part of Canada. Our mining laws were imported from Great Britain. Much of our current mining law in BC came from the passage of the Gold Fields Act in 1859.

The Gold Fields Act was strongly based on the legislation passed in Australia three years prior with the same name. The three principles of the free miner were paramount: the right to discovery, the right of entry to explore and the right to miner’s law. Under the new act, any person 16 years of age or over could obtain a Free Miner Certificate for the cost of one pound. An FMC gave its holder (the “free miner”) the right to freely enter onto, and stake a claim, on any un-staked area of Crown land – including private property and First Nations’ territories.

Governor Douglas’ law differed from the Australian law in that it allowed more freedom for miner’s boards. The rules for claim size and the ins and outs of staking a claim varied between mining districts. The government was small and the territory was vast.

The BC government didn’t have the means or the manpower to police all details of mining. They set the ground rules, issued a free miner’s license and let the miners boards police themselves. The large geographical areas and differences among deposits necessitated that claim size, rules and laws be different across the province. The local miner’s boards were able to rule by consensus.

Vigilante justice and decisions by majority vote prevailed in the camps. In time the North West Mounted Police (the predecessor to the RCMP) took on a larger role and established itself in most of the gold rush towns. By the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, there was a substantial NWMP presence in the gold mining areas.

Changes in Legislation

In 1891, provincial legislation formally recognized locations in which free miners could not enter onto and prospect for mineral claims. This included towns, private homes and Indian reserve lands. Today, areas that do not carry the automatic right of entry include land occupied by a building, the 75m of land directly surrounding a private residence (if that area is lawns, gardens etc.) and crop lands.

During the gold rush era (1850s to 1910s) most of the areas being prospected and mined took place on unoccupied frontier land. There were very few people around. On top of that, the techniques of placer mining consisted of pans and rocker boxes. In later years when miners employed more capital-intensive techniques like damming and hydraulicking, water licenses and land use started to become an issue.

In 1911 the Mineral Easements Act was passed. This new act established rules for right of way access to mineral and placer claims over private land. These rights of way included the right to construct the infrastructure required for mining and the right to use existing roads in aid of their mining activities

Under this act, only thirty days’ notice (including an advertisement published in the British Columbia Gazette and in a local newspaper for one month) was required for the establishment of a right of way that could last over an area of land for generations and permit the construction of a pipeline, tramway, and movement of heavy machinery.

Today, the ability for free miners to secure a right of way over private land, without the consent of the landowner, is preserved under section 2 of the Mining Right of Way Act – a legislative successor of the Mineral Easements Act of 1911.

Modern Laws on Free Miners in BC

Claim Post Cariboo

Much of the free miner system remained the same until the 1990s. In 1995 the Mineral Tenure Amendment Act was passed, which added some limitations to mineral rights and activities on private lands. The act prohibited free miners from “interfering with any operation, activity or work on private land”. That was the first major restriction on the free entry system since 1891.

In 2002 amendments to the Mineral Tenure Act, removed the prohibition against free miners and recorded holders from interfering with any operation, activity or work on private land. The amendment provided that interfering with privately held land was permissible, so long as it was minimal and the private owner was compensated.

On January 12, 2005, the whole game changed. BC initiated the online staking system that we know today. Prospectors were no longer required to physically drive claim stakes into the ground, staking could now be done with the click of a mouse. This opened the door to a whole new level of speculation. The number of staked claims grew exponentially. Free miner rights remained intact.

In 2008 the Mineral Tenure Act and Mineral Tenure Act Regulation were amended once again to require that any person beginning mining activities on private land had to give notice at least eight days prior to beginning any mining activity. That law stands to this day. A free miner still has the right to occupy private property but must give a minimum of 8 days’ notice prior to occupation. It is important to note that notice does not require consent. A free miner must notify private landowners but does not need their permission to occupy private land for the purposes of mining.

The current law is specified in Section 14 of the Mineral Tenure Act which states:

Subject to this Act, a recorded holder may use, enter and occupy the surface of a claim or lease for the exploration and development or production of minerals or placer minerals, including the treatment of ore and concentrates, and all operations related to the exploration and development or production of minerals or placer minerals and the business of mining.

The current restrictions on private land include:

  • land occupied by a building
  • the curtilage of a dwelling house,
  • orchard land
  • land under cultivation
  • land lawfully occupied for mining purposes
  • protected heritage property, except as authorized by the local government
    land in a park

The concept of the “Free Miner” has deep historical roots and much of the free entry system and principles of the free miner are still present in BC laws and practices. The three core tenents of the free miner The right to discovery, Freedom to roam and self-government are built into our current laws. The miner’s meetings and self-government are no longer necessary as we now have strong governments with actual mining laws in place.

The free entry system is often misunderstood by people who aren’t familiar with the intent and history of the system. Private landowners are often surprised to learn that they have to allow miners onto their property. As a result, the free entry system is under threat by people outside of the mining community. Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories have abandoned free miner’s rights due to public pressure.

The same principles that created free entry in Roman and medieval Europe are true today. In order to explore for minerals, it is necessary to have access to the land. If we lose the free entry rights then it will become harder and harder to discover and produce the minerals that our society needs.

When you hold a Free Miner’s Certificate you belong to a long history of free miners. It’s not just a piece of paper. The FMC represents freedom in the true sense of the word. A free miner means belonging to a community that built its own rules and paved the way for modern society. We might have modern tools, advanced technology, and modern government but a discovery today is no different than a discovery in medieval Bavaria. All miners strive for independence and to feed their sense of adventure.

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What is the true value of gold?

What is the true value of gold?

There’s something about gold. It possesses us, sometimes entire nations to accumulate more and more of it. Humans have had a strong affinity for gold since the times of the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs. Gold has been used as currency for thousands of years. Wars have been fought for it, entire civilizations slaughtered for their gold.  Pindar, the ancient Greek poet, described gold as “a child of Zeus, neither moth or rust devoureth it, but the mind of man is devoured by this supreme possession.”

goldCoins

It’s hard to describe the feeling of finding your first gold nugget in an old stream bed.  It sits there in your pan shimmering, the way that only gold can.  You immediately recognize it’s power, it is intoxicating.  This is what drives prospectors past and present to take great risks in the search for gold.  There’s more than just the value of gold that attracts us to it.  The word “placer” itself comes from the Spanish word meaning “pleasure”. For some it is an addiction, for others it symbolizes wealth. You’ll be hard pressed to find a member of the human species who wouldn’t be interested in some gold.

Gold has several properties that make it desirable.  Most importantly it does not rust or tarnish.  Gold artwork discovered in the tombs of Egypt looks just as lustrous today as it did 5000 years ago.  Why is that?  Gold belongs to a group of metals called the “Noble Metals”.  They’re called noble because like nobility in old time monarchies they don’t associate with others.  It’s fancy way of saying that the metals don’t readily react.  Conversely iron will readily react with oxygen to form iron oxide (aka rust).  Gold and other noble metals, such as platinum, possess a very strong atomic structure that requires a lot of energy to disrupt.

KingTut

The ability to maintain over time is common of all valuable substances.  A diamond for example produces a characteristic glow when cut and faceted properly but what good would it be if it disintegrated a month later?  Diamonds are extremely hard and have a rock solid crystal structure.  Other valuable gemstones all share similar properties, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and garnets all sit at the high end of the hardness scale.  While gold isn’t hard in a geological sense it maintains it’s shape and luster indefinitely.

Gold is also very malleable.  Meaning that it can be hammered or pressed into various shapes without cracking or losing its consistency.  You could stretch an ounce of gold into a wire 80km long or produce a sheet of gold leaf 80 meters by 80 meters wide.  Gold is also an excellent conductor.  Not quite as good as copper but a better conductor than nickel, brass, iron, tin, and aluminium.  Gold conductive wire is used in many critical electronics applications such as computer motherboards, smart phones and satellites.

CarajasMine
Carajás iron mine, Brazil

What really makes gold valuable though is it’s scarcity at the earth’s surface.  Approximately 165,000 metric tons of gold have been produced in the entirety of human history.  While that may sound like a lot the amount of gold produced by mining is extremely small in comparison to other metals.  For example the Carajás Mine in Brazil produces an average of 300 million metric tons of iron per year and has a deposit estimated at 7.2 billion metric tons.  And that’s just one mine.  All the gold ever produced would fit inside one Olympic sized swimming pool.

It is often stated that you can’t eat gold.  While that’s not entirely true, (see gold covered pizza) an all gold diet wouldn’t provide much nutrition, and you’d probably have some digestive issues.  The yellow metal doesn’t appeal to our basic needs for survival but neither does money or a smartphone.  That doesn’t make any of these things less valuable.

gold-400oz-bar

 

We typically think of value in dollar terms.  When evaluating an investment such as stocks or real estate it’s hard to think of anything else.  Dollars are not constant though, they are subject to manipulation and inflation.  For at least 6000 years gold has been used as currency and unlike modern currency is not subject to inflation.  Modern currencies are what is called “Fiat Currency”.  There is no standard on what a modern currency note can be exchanged for.  Their value relies solely on people’s faith in it.  Or more correctly their faith in the government.  Inflation rates can severely affect the spending power of a dollar.  There are countless examples, the most striking is the inflation of the German Reichsmark which rose from 4.2 marks to USD in 1914 to a peak of around 4.2 trillion marks to the US dollar by November 1923.  At that time a wheelbarrow full of German marks wouldn’t even buy a newspaper.

Historically world currencies were backed by the gold standard which meant that by law any amount of paper money could be exchanged for a specified amount of gold.  In the 1920s each US dollar was backed by 1.5 grams of gold.  The dropping of the gold standard in Germany during WWI allowed for the hyperinflation that followed.  The United States dropped the standard during the great depression to avoid the federal gold supply from being completely depleted.  Canada followed suit in 1933.  There’s much debate on the merits of dropping the gold standard.  What resulted though is the ability for the government to completely control the currency without requiring tangible assets (ie. gold) to back it up.

Gold bars
Gold bars

So if the dollar is backed by nothing and can be manipulated at will how do you gauge the value of gold.  Or anything for that matter.  True value depends on what people are willing to trade for your goods.  Money makes it easy to barter and trade goods since it’s ubiquitous and there is an agreed upon value at any given time.  For example if you want to sell your car on craigslist you’ll have an idea of how many dollars you want for it.  Lets say you have a used Honda Civic.  You could sell that easily for $4000 CAD.  That same Honda Civic could be traded for a 1 carat diamond engagement ring.  50 years from now a used car might sell for $25,000 dollars due to inflation but the exchange rate of car to diamond ring would remain the same.

The old adage that an ounce of gold will buy you a nice suit still rings true today.  In the gold rush era (1848-1900) an ounce of gold would trade for about $20 USD, and would also buy a nice suit.  A typical suit today would cost you about $450 USD.  So it would seem that today’s gold would buy you 3.5 nice suits.  You have to consider that in the 1800s nice clothing was not mass produced.  To compare accurately you’d have to look at a tailored suit.  A mid range tailored suit made in the United States costs between $1650 and $1800 today.   At present gold is trading at about $1250 USD so the suit adage falls just above the quoted dollar value of gold.

Indian River Yukon

What really gives gold it’s value is the cost of exploration and production.  Being very rare it takes a lot of effort to find gold.  Once it’s found it is expensive to produce as well.   For example Barrick’s Cortez mine in Nevada has an average grade of 2.11 grams per ton.  That means that for every ton of ore processed they average 2.11 grams of gold.  Barrick’s published production cost at the Cortez mine is about $900/oz.  It really is remarkable that they can move and process the 15 tons of rock required to obtain an ounce of gold for $900.

The cost of producing an ounce of gold varies for each mine.  In a placer operation it is a constant cat and mouse game to keep costs low enough to make production economical.  When gold commodity prices fall below production costs mines shut down and less and less gold is produced.  The production cost, driven by scarcity is the single most important factor that drives the price of gold.

RC Drill in Action

Gold exploration is also very expensive.  In the times of the North American gold rush placer and hard rock gold was discovered all over the Western part of the continent.  From the 1840s to 1900 new gold districts were popping up every year as discoveries were made.  Trending almost in sequence Northward from California to the Yukon as explorers made their way through the wilderness.  In more modern times most of the easily reachable areas have have been at least partially explored.  Exploration today mostly takes place in more and more remote areas, such as the Canadian Arctic or other places with a small human footprint.

To properly explore a claim in these areas requires a camp. helicopters and all kinds of equipment.  A typical small exploration program in the Northwest Territories can cost well over $1,000,000 per season with slim chances of success.  While advancements in exploration technology such as geophysics and aerial imagery can provide information that wasn’t available to previous explorers there is no silver bullet.

The costs of thousands of exploration ventures that didn’t amount to a mine are factored into the price of gold as well.  For the estimated 100,000 explorers that took part in the Yukon gold rush only a select few managed to recoup their costs.  Some made made great discoveries but many more spent their life savings on an adventure but returned with no gold.

Big Al Jig

Gold’s value is based on it’s unique properties, people’s desire for the very special metal and the work required to find and produce it.  The value has nothing to do with the the dollar value attached to it.  For every ounce of gold produced tons of rock had to be excavated, the deposit had to be discovered and mapped, and the ore milled and smelted to extract the gold.  As you gaze upon your gold ring and admire it’s beauty think about the story that it could tell you.

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UAV Applications in Mining

UAV Applications in Mining

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are in the process of changing many industries.  Before UAV technology matured into a safe, reliable and low cost system aerial data was acquired by full size human piloted aircraft and was very expensive.  With today’s drones aerial data is cheaper, quicker and more creative than ever before.

droneMining

The mining industry stands to benefit greatly from new advances in aerial data acquisition.  In many cases drones are already being used in mining and in the coming years will be almost ubiquitous.

Drones offer huge advantages in every part of the mining life cycle including Exploration, Planning/Permitting, Mining Operations and Reclamation.

Exploration

DroneBanner

Mineral properties are often in remote areas where existing maps are either non-existent or of poor resolution.  In early stage exploration it is beneficial to have a quick overview of the prospect area.  In the past this would have been acquired by a conventional aerial photography company.  This would come with a large price tag.  As a result aerial mapping surveys would not be conducted until later stages of exploration.

Today a drone can do a better job for less money.  Drones can map an area in high resolution in less than a day, usually a couple of hours.  The cameras on today’s drones have benefited from advancements in small high resolution sensors. Miniaturization of other components such as GPS and computer boards has also contributed to the modern drone.  Due to the unmanned nature of a drone it can fly close to the ground which allows unparalleled image resolution.  Conventional aerial survey aircraft require camera’s with extremely high resolution (80mp and up) because they fly at elevations of 2000-5000 ft above the survey area.  Drones can fly at 250 ft with a 16mp camera and get better data.

Satellite imagery has come a long way as well but does not come close to the quality of drone data and the cost is still prohibitive.  The best satellite data today is provided by the WorldView-3 satellite at 31cm/px.  Drones can produce 4.0cm/px or better.  You can forget about Google Earth, their resolution is no better than 65cm/px.

Early stage exploration projects can now get a rapid aerial image mosaic produced by a drone for a couple thousand dollars.  Where a conventional aircraft would produce an inferior product for about ten times the cost.  This cost advantage allows imagery to be collected very early in the exploration process when it can be of the most benefit.

In addition to aerial imagery the same drone data can be used to produce accurate topographical maps and GIS data in remote areas.  Topo mapping was previously produced by ground surveyors with an RTK/GPS rover.  You would have to pay a survey crew to walk the entire property and collect GPS points to be used in a map.  Mapping drones can do this today without the need for any ground control points at all!

Strati.jpg.pagespeed.ce.51mTrkbnOw

The combination of low cost aerial imagery and terrain data allow modern explorers to have a close up view of any property in 3D.  Having this capability in early stage exploration aids significantly in project planning.  Drones can provide support for mineral exploration in the following areas:

  • Terrain Assessment
  • Geomorphology
  • Outcrop Detection
  • Wildlife and Environmental Assessment
  • Drill, Showing and Equipment Location
  • Up to date imagery of the property

Remote sensing has huge applications in prospecting as well.  In the years to come sensors such as infrared, hyper/multispectral cameras and LiDAR will improve upon existing satellite based techniques to map underground river systems and directly identify mineral bearing outcrops.

Aerial geophysics is making its way into drones too.  I was involved in the development of a large scale drone from 2011-2013 designed to conduct long range aerial magnetometer surveys.  It was a great advancement but sadly the company suffered from poor management.  A few other companies have developed magnetometer drones in recent years too.  Drone geophysics has the same advantages over conventional aircraft such as low acquisition cost and rapid deployment.

Venturer Geophysics Drone
Prototype Long Range Geophysics Drone in 2012

Planning/Permitting

In the development stage drones offer unparalleled advantages to mining companies.  One of the biggest hurdles in developing a mine is environmental permitting.  Low cost drone imagery can map a mining property in incredible detail.  Aerial photos allow mine planners to easily locate and map:

  • Trees/vegetation
  • Streams, Rivers and Lakes
  • Wildlife Counts
  • Existing Roads, infrastructure
  • Before/After Ground Disturbance

Having aerial photos of an area before mining takes place will give an honest account of what the land was like when it comes to reclamation.  Wildlife counts and mapping of the ecosystem are crucial in development of environmental impact assessments.

Prototype LiDAR on drone
Prototype LiDAR on drone
Wing-tip magnetometer on a drone
Wing-tip magnetometer on a drone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three dimensional mapping has been used in mine development for decades.  This data is relied on by mine planners to develop the mine itself, roads, tailings ponds, electrical infrastructure, and pretty much everything.  The main tool used is LiDAR which is a laser scanner that produces a high resolution 3D model.  Drones can produce the same data for less money.  LiDAR sensors are just starting to be installed on drones.  Photogrammetry can produce the same quality of model as LiDAR as well but cannot separate trees from ground as effectively.

Photogrammetry and LiDAR data are used for:

  • Mine pit development
  • Tailings pond design
  • Cost effective power line routes
  • Development of access roads
  • Geological Assessment

Mining Operations

Ore Pile Volumetrics
Ore Pile Volumetrics

In the operation/mining phase drones have a lot to offer.  One of the most widely used applications of drones in mining today in in stockpile volumetrics.  That is the 3D volume calculation of pile of waste rock or ore piles.  Having volumetric surveys completed at regular intervals will give an accurate measurement of how much material has been moved in that time.  This is important for many reasons.  Historically stock pile measurements have been conducted by ground surveyors with GPS rovers.  Many mines are still operating this way today.  Drone can do the same job without the need to pay for survey crews or to put people in a potentially dangerous situation.

Drones can provide detailed modelling and imagery of pit walls and slope stability.  Fixed-wing and multirotor inspection drones can get a close up, detailed image of potential points of failure in a pit wall.  Smaller multirotor drones are starting to be used to map underground mines too, offering the same advantages.

3D pit models can be done for a surprisingly low cost.  West Coast Placer conducted a pit mapping survey for a coal mine this summer and the results were amazing.  Check out the above video for a sample.  Mine engineers were able to use our data in their mine planning software (Minesight) to aid in development of the mine.  Like stockpile volumetrics pit mapping will provide a useful record of mine activity when repeated at a regular interval.  The low cost of drone data makes repeated surveys feasible on any budget.

Environmental monitoring is a part of active mines too.  As discussed drone aerial data offers huge advantages to environmental monitoring teams.  In the event of an accident or disaster drones can provide a detailed image of the event as it happens.  When the Mount Polley mine near Likely, BC had their tailing dam disaster in 2014 drones were used to map the extent of the damage.  The same drone company provided updates as the clean up progressed.

Reclamation

reclamation

During reclamation it is required to show before and after imagery to prove that a mining company is upholding their obligations.  Accurate three dimensional data acquired by UAVs helps mines return the terrain of a mine as close as possible to its original state.  Periodic surveys can show the progress as an ecosystem returns to it’s pre-mining conditions.

Currently in 2015 drones are just beginning to be used in mining.  There are a few intrepid drone service providers like West Coast Placer offering amazing products for prices that are 1/4 or less of what traditional aircraft would cost.  In the coming years we are going to see more and more drones operating on mine sites.  It will be standard equipment for explorers, miners and environmental teams in the not too distant future.

Check out our drones page to see the drone services provided by WestCoastPlacer.

 

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