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They’re performing with Lady Gaga at the Superbowl and taking over toy store shelves; drones are becoming ubiquitous. Our trials suggest they’ll help transform the mining industry too.

There are many examples where drones are making mining safer, most obviously by helping keep our people out of harm’s way. At some of our coal mines in Queensland, they’re used to ensure areas are clear before a blast takes place and to track fumes post-blast. They’re also used to improve road safety on sites, by monitoring traffic, road conditions and hazards. At our Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, the maintenance team use them to help inspect overhead cranes, towers and roofs of tall buildings to avoid working at height.

We’re also becoming more productive. We’ve been trialling drones fitted with military-grade cameras to provide real time aerial footage and 3D maps of our sites. This is far cheaper than using planes for survey work, and the savings at our sites in Queensland alone are estimated to be A$5 million a year.

With drones, we now gather more information about our sites than ever before. We can more quickly and accurately measure our stockpiles, review compliance to design against mine plans and understand where we need to make changes to improve safety or boost productivity.

At our Onshore US oil operations, drones have been used to inspect the flare tips at our processing plants. Flares form part of the plant's safety and environmental management system and must be operational 100 per cent of the time. Visual inspections can normally only happen during a complete plant shut down. Drones have allowed the inspections to be carried out while the plants are online.

It’s not just on our sites that drones are being employed. Heritage Manager, Daniel Bruckner uses drones to map and digitally record areas of cultural heritage where they exist near BHP Billiton sites in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

“For me, the bigger picture is what this technology allows us to do that could never have been done before, and for us that means being able to share and preserve cultural heritage that might otherwise have been lost,” Daniel says.

“We’re now able to share all our footage with local Aboriginal groups, and they’re excited about that possibility.”

How drones are changing mining

Technology will change the nature of work. For example, with drones capable of delivering samples from site, surveyors will spend less time gathering data in the field and more time interpreting it. And soon, more drones could be managed by ‘pilots’ operating from a range of different vantage points.

Drones are a good case study for how we want to introduce new technology into BHP Billiton. We’re quickly becoming a more digital, integrated and connected business. And we’re looking at ways of improving the way we mine from every angle.

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