A new UA project may soon put drones next to hammers and compasses in the field geologist’s toolkit. A new interdisciplinary UA study is exploring the use of drone-mounted hyperspectral and LiDAR scanners in field geology, remote sensing, geotechnics, and geometallurgy. LiDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) sensors use laser scanning to detect detailed topographic and surface features at scales from centimeters to kilometers.
Hyperspectral sensors operate at similar scales and detect sunlight absorption at particular electromagnetic wavelengths, caused by vibration of different chemical bonds specific to individual minerals and chemicals. Put together, hyperspectral and LiDAR sensors can detect surface topography, identify minerals, delineate wet or snowy areas, distinguish different vegetation types, measure snowpack, and many other applications.
There’s just one hitch: most sensors are too big and clunky to travel with geologists in the field, and they can’t handle the often dusty, low-light, and GPS-denied environments of mining and geotechnics. Now an interdisciplinary UA-industry team including Mark Barton and Rick Bennett (Geosciences), Isabel Barton (Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources), Johnny Lyons-Baral and John Kemeny (Mining and Geological Engineering), and Bill Smith and Stuart Marsh (Natural Resources and the Environment) is working with with Headwall Photonics, Hexagon Mining, Lisbon Valley Mining, Barrick Gold, Freeport-McMoRan Inc., and Golder Associates to solve those problems. Mounting sensors on drones, combining hyperspectral and LiDAR data, and developing new data collection and reduction algorithms to help handle challenging environments were the subjects of a two-day lab- and field-based workshop in March. This June the group is heading out to southeastern Utah for a field test of hyperspectral imaging at sites around the Lisbon Valley mine. Stay tuned for the results. And watch out for sensor-bearing drones overhead… or underground!