JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – Mining depends on infrastructure – so much so that mining companies sometimes have to build and operate their own railways, ports and power stations in parts of the world in which such essentials are nonexistent or woefully inadequate. And those parts of the world tend to be rather isolated or remote. Which brings another form of infrastructure into play, one rarely thought of in relation to mining projects – aviation.
Aviation plays a key role in supporting mining around the world, and not just in areas lacking roads and railways. In places with good terrestrial infrastructure, but long distances, like South Africa, aviation is also most helpful to miners. There are many missions executed by aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary wing and now unmanned as well as manned, in support of the mining industry. These include aerial surveying, aerial observation, the transport of staff to and from operations in remote or distant locations, the transport of key equipment to these mines and even the transport of precious metals and stones from the mines where they have been extracted to secure locations in major centres.
Aircraft can be used to gather a wide range of survey data using a wide variety of instruments. These include aerial cameras, light detection and ranging, or lidar, which acts like radar but uses a laser instead of a radar transmitter, infrared, ultraviolet and gamma-ray sensors and magnetic and gravity sensors. Lidar, for example, can be used for topographical surveys, volumetric calculations of open pits, stockpiles and tailings, detection of ground deformations and so on.
Aeromagnetic and gravity surveys gather geophysical data and are often used in conjunction, especially in oil and gas surveys. Once regarded as rough approximations, the quality of aeromagnetic and gravity survey data has improved substantially over the past 30 years. Aerial surveying is almost always carried out by specialist companies using specialised equipment, which is often permanently mounted on the aircraft and may require modifications to the airframes concerned.
A number of such companies are operating in South Africa, some being local enterprises and others local or regional arms of global groups. Examples include (but are not restricted to) African Consulting Surveyors, CGG, CK Aerial Surveys, Spectrem and WGS Aerial Surveys.
South African operation Spectrem is unusual in that it actually belongs to a mining group, being wholly owned by Anglo American plc. Spectrem owns and operates one aircraft – a highly modified Douglas DC-3 Dakota. “It has just been totally refurbished and all its electronics upgraded,” says Anglo American Aviation Services chief pilot Sonny Janeke. “It’s an incredibly powerful platform – it is fitted with an auxiliary power unit to provide power for all its electronics. It normally has a crew of two pilots and two or three specialists operating the equipment. It is a dedicated survey aircraft and, while it does mainly electromagnetic surveying, it can do other types of surveying as well. It is used to carry out new surveys but we also do a lot of surveys of current properties where mining is taking place – to survey the extent of the orebody or to determine if there are related orebodies on the property.”
Around the world, although it is not uncommon for mining companies to own one or two aircraft, it is much more usual for them to contract out their aviation support requirements to specialist aviation companies, either through long-term or short-term charters or wet leasing (that is, leasing aircraft plus crews). Two such companies based in this country are ExecuJet South Africa (part of the global ExecuJet group) and National Airways Corporation (NAC). Of course, there are other players in this sector as well.
“Mining support covers a wide spectrum, from regular contract flights to bespoke flying operations, in support of exploration and flying into remote destinations,” points out NAC CEO Martin Banner. “Africa’s air transport is much improved, in point-to-point (city-to-city) terms, but you still need to get to remote areas from those points. We primarily transport personnel for mining companies and we regularly transport cargo for them – specialised equipment, obviously, not heavy equipment. We do not transport precious metals or stones.”
“When it comes to mining, we have the capability of operating anywhere in Africa, but we have found the busiest area to be Southern Africa, including South Africa. In West Africa, we found opportunities in oil and gas,” affirms ExecuJet SA marketing and sales director Stephen Paddy. “Typically, we do people – 99% of our business would be flying people into or around sites, with only the odd request for cargo. We don’t get requests to fly precious metals or stones: that’s not our game.”
NAC and ExecuJet both support exploration and mining operations, but do not undertake surveying. “When it comes to prospecting, sites can be in remote areas and the easiest way to get to them is by air and, when you get to the site, the easiest way to land is often by helicopter,” notes Paddy. “Exploration is often in remote areas and the subsequent mining operations are still in remote areas,” agrees Banner. The two companies transport both executives and workers to and from these remote locations.
In Africa, it is usual for mining projects to have their own landing strips. In the early stages, these are usually unpaved, although paved runways are common at well-established operational mines. These different types of runway are ideal for the use of different types of aircraft. For unpaved strips, both enterprises employ turbo- prop aircraft. For flying into paved airstrips, they both usually employ jets. Helicopters are used around project sites. Both companies have large fleets of aircraft – 148 in the case of NAC – which range from light helicopters and single- engined turboprops to business jets and regional airliners, giving them a wide range of operational options.
“The mining market has been badly hit by the commodities slump. Marginal exploration has almost totally stopped,” reports Banner. “What we’ve seen is pressure on this business due to the fall in commodity prices. We have seen a downturn in requests from the mining industry, but that’s mainly in South Africa,” adds Paddy. Fortunately, for both companies, mining support is only one element in broad-based businesses, so the downturn in the sector has had little impact on them.
The one mining company operating in South Africa with a significant in-house aviation capability is Anglo American plc, through its wholly owned operation, Anglo American Aviation Services (AAAS). This South Africa- based operation is 78 years old this year. From then until now, the focus has been on the safe and efficient transport of group executives and personnel, especially to and from projects in remote areas. All Anglo American new mine projects consider aviation aspects and budgets may include funding for an airstrip where this is deemed necessary.
AAAS has three main functions. Firstly, it operates its own fleet of aircraft. Currently, this is composed of one Dornier 328Jet regional airliner, with a capacity of 32 passengers, two Beechcraft 1900 twin turboprop 19-seat commuter airliners and a Cessna Citation Excel eight-seat business jet. “Every day, for example, we have two aircraft – the 328Jet and one of the 1900s – go out to Sishen [iron-ore mine, in the Northern Cape province], and Kolomela, (part of the Sishen South project),” highlights Janeke. “We have our own aviation maintenance organisation and we do about 90% of our own maintenance on our own site. Occasionally, we also do maintenance for visiting aircraft. We are still a certified Gulfstream maintenance centre, even though we no longer operate a Gulfstream aircraft.”
Secondly, it carries out safety audits on other operators that are contracted to provide flying services for the parent group around the world, particularly in support of exploration activities. “These are often in inaccessible places that are hostile environments,” he notes. “Either we transport them or we approve local operators – ensuring that they are to our required standards.” Anglo American, like most mining companies, is a member of the Flight Safety Foundation’s Basic Aviation Risks Standard (better known as BARS), which provides a pool of safety audited companies to choose from. AAAS itself is a BARS Gold Member, meaning that it only has to be audited every two years.
Although most AAAS operations are categorised under South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) regulations as Part 91 opera- tions (company aircraft carrying company personnel), AAAS is certified to the much higher standards required of charter operations. AAAS has a dedicated aviation safety manager responsible for all aspects of flight safety involving Anglo American staff, including the safety of new airstrips, in terms of aircraft approach, landing, takeoff and security on the ground.
Thirdly, it provides oversight for a few other aircraft. Apart from the Spectrem DC-3, which is also maintained by AAAS, these include a Beechcraft 1900 and a Beechcraft King Air operated in Botswana by Debswana, and a Cessna Citation Excel operated in Namibia by Namdeb. In South Africa, Anglo Platinum operates an Agusta A139 helicopter.
AAAS has also felt the effect of the global downturn in commodity prices. “Our aircraft fleet is much smaller that it was a decade ago,” reports Janeke. “We’ve gone from ten aircraft and 35 aircrew to five aircraft and 17 aircrew, due to the downturn in global mining. When the upturn comes, we’ll probably expand again. Mining is a terribly cyclical business.”
Globally, the extreme example of a miner with a serious in-house aviation capability is probably Russia’s Norilsk Nickel, which owns an entire airline, Nordstar. This has a fleet of 15 airliners – nine Boeing 737-800 jets, one 737-300 jet and five ATR42-500 turboprops!
A new development, at least in South Africa, is the use of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) in support of mining. One of the companies doing this is local enterprise Delta Drone Africa. “We, at Delta Drone, do not believe UAVs are replacements for manned aircraft but act as complementary means of acquiring the data mine managements need,” explains company MD Richard Sanz. “Our core business is to acquire data from the sky and add value to it for the client.” The company has developed the methodology required to convert the raw UAV data into actionable information. This is done through its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Information System, more usually referred to as Uavis, which provides the required analyses within 24 hours, every day of the year (if required).
“We manage the full value chain for the miner: safety, security, training, data acquisition and storage post-processing, and provide state-of-the-art expertise for mines and quarries,” he elucidates. “The whole value chain is encapsulated in a proprietary cloud solution – Uavis – and the deliverables can be exported in any customised format.” (The company can also supply such services to other sectors, such as agriculture and forestry and industrial inspection; currently, however, 66% of its business is in the mining and quarrying sector.)
It can carry out rapid and frequent topographic mining surveys, providing management with the latest information on mine stockpiles, cuttings and other activities, allowing the refinement of operational plans (especially with regard to openpit operations) and the improvement of safety. UAVs can also monitor subcontractor operations on the mine site, whether these be extraction or drilling or mechanical stripping, or all of these.
Delta Drone currently operates two types of UAV – the Delta H quadcopter and the fixed wing Delta Y. In addition to South Africa, it is operating in the US and has operated in Italy and France for the past four years. It has received serious enquiries from Cameroon, Congo, Morocco, Mozambique, Senegal and Togo. It can adapt its operations to the customer’s requirements.
AAAS is also moving into UAV operations, or remotely piloted aviation services, as it prefers to call them. “We hope to be the first mining company in South Africa to be certified to operate UAVs,” reports Janeke. “We’ve worked very closely with the SACAA with regard to the regulations for UAVs. Our UAV pilots are already trained and are now at Sishen; we had about 12 pilots trained, at Wonderboom Airport, in Pretoria. Our main focus is on survey work. It’ll be a totally internal operation, which will be used to support mining operations. There are many applications for UAVs in mining, including the provision of real-time data on operations – mine GMs will be able to view UAV imagery on their computer screens. But the main focus, initially, will be on survey work. Each mine will operate autonomously, each will have a UAV operations manager, who will report to me, to ensure a common safety and auditing system. I think UAVs will become a big thing in the future.”