BINGHAM CANYON — At about $2,000 apiece, drones have become an invaluable set of eyes for the mining operations at Rio Tinto Kennecott, providing real-time 3-D mapping, equipment inspections and surveillance of slopes, crests and walls.
The five drones at the Bingham Canyon mining operation are the result of a four-year effort by the company to boost employee safety and provide enhanced capabilities of surveying one of the world's largest open-pit mines.
"The potential we can unlock with these is only limited by the imagination," said David van Hees, drone programs lead for Rio Tinto Kennecott.
Drone pilots go through rigorous certification offered by an aviation company, and each pilot conducts preflight safety checks. Multiple flights lasting about 18 minutes happen daily, and each pilot works with two spotters who measure wind speed and look for potential aerial hazards.
The drones provide a visual record of the mining operations that minimizes risks to workers — checking out potential problems in place of having a worker perform the task.
"Having a drone in that spot instead of a worker eliminates any risks or hazards for employees," said Matt Key, chief drone pilot who also trains other employees who want to become pilots.
Steve Richards is a surveyor who never dreamed he'd be one day using drones to enhance what he does in the field.
"They provide us an opportunity we didn't have before," he said. "From a safety perspective, you can't beat it."
Surveyors like Richards are able to collect actual spatial data from above, taking advantage of technology that reduces the amount of time on the ground. In many instances, surveying projects that could last for weeks don't take nearly as long.
Globally, drones in mining operations are becoming increasingly common. They are used for mapping, mineral exploration and tracking stockpiles.
In the past, Richards would be walking the crest or checking out berms. The drone can do that now and offers eyes-on critical information at the mine site.
Kyle Bennett, Rio Tinto Kennecott spokesman, said the company worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to meet the regulatory requirements for commercial use of drones.
The mine's remote location on the extreme western side of Salt Lake County means there is little potential for interference with other air traffic, but Bennett said the unmanned aerial vehicle preflight check includes requirements to monitor local airspace restrictions and conditions.
Every flight is conducted with a 100-foot buffer from people, and each drone comes with anti-collision technology that alerts the pilot if it comes too close to another object.
Beyond the safety dimension and the enhanced mapping capabilities the drones provide, flying one — for a living — is simply cool, said drone pilot Andrew Carey.
"It's not a bad job at all," he said, smiling. "It's pretty awesome."