Case study: Using managed drone services for rapid mineral exploration in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country on our planet: its 2,7 million square kilometers make it the largest land-locked territory in the World. It has many beautiful vistas, like forests, plains, mountains, and near-infinite riches hidden underground. It only makes sense then that many companies and entities are looking for deposits of some of the most lucrative minerals in the World; Kazakhstan is the leading producer of:

  • Uranium: around 40% of the World's uranium reserves are located here
  • Tungsten: key for the production of electrical contacts and light bulb filaments
  • Barite: a weighting agent in drilling fluids in the oil and gas industry
  • Rhenium: critical for creating high-temperature alloys for the aerospace and aviation industries
  • Fluorspar: a component in the production of aluminum, gasoline, and refrigerants
  • Chromium: mineral used in the production of stainless steel and other alloys
  • Lead and zinc: crucial for the production of batteries and many other items and components

With so much to look forward to, we were equally excited and intimidated to take on our first project in the Kazakh wilderness.

The mineral surveying project preparation

Fluorite ore

A surveying company has approached Microavia to assist on a mission to find certain rare minerals in Kazakhstan in late August 2022. The surveying company has already tried to run the survey with other means, as well as drones but ran into several issues:

  • Ground-based surveys took too much time and quickly became a logistical nightmare, as the territory in question has been quite hazardous, with nature resisting progress at every step.
  • Airplane/helicopter-based surveys were faster but offered relatively poor data due to turbulence. They were also extremely costly, even compared to ground-based ones.
  • Unfortunately, the first UAV survey used not-so-robust drones, which led to 4 drones being destroyed in the process and only half of the required area covered.
  • The weather and visibility conditions were expected to quickly deteriorate in the area, meaning that the survey might need to be postponed, ruining the surveying and mining infrastructure plans.

Microavia drone infrastructure as a service offering was naturally appealing, as it solved many of the issues and provided additional benefits:

  • Microavia Fortis geodrone is built precisely for these missions and, unlike conventional commercial drones, has a frame which is highly resilient to elements
  • The size of the project team could be kept to a minimum: a geophysicist to analyze the results and advise on telemetry and a drone pilot, which Microavia provided as a part of the service package.
  • Flight altitudes can vary significantly in the territory where mountains and forests are dominant. Terrain-follow functionality of the drone could prove invaluable.

The preparation took place based on these factors, and the team was ready to start. The rigid timeline was:

  • Two weeks for preparation and logistics
  • Two weeks in the area to do the readings
  • Three weeks for further processing and analysis of results

Surveying the wilderness

The team set out early in the morning, armed with their equipment and supplies on 2 ATVs. As they progressed through the dense forest, our pilot started doing trial launches to find optimal campsites, surveying the rugged terrain from above. Two sites with relatively few trees were identified, and over the course of the following two weeks, the team moved from one to other to optimize the speed of surveying.

Microavia pilot mapped the area and set the mission structure for optimal ca 200 km/day performance.
Since the area was known, the UTM was pre-loaded with a 3D map based on OpebGlobus data. To make planning the missions more effortless, a KML file was prepared to hasten and semi-automate the survey planning.

Also, since the expected flight altitudes were likely to vary between 30 and 100 meters, the drone was upgraded with our latest soft climb point and acceleration/deceleration functionality. After that, verifying the flight routes and replacing the battery after each flight was a matter.

The UAV and team members performed amazingly and provided daily updates on their progress. We also re-analyzed the area scanned by the previous survey for better results. The weather was getting gradually worse, though, and while the mission started with average wind speeds of 10 m/s, gusts of 20m/s were becoming quite common. At one point, the drone hit a tree during a rapid ascend and damaged one of the rotors. Fortunately, the field repair kit was enough to fix the copter and finish the survey.

Mining survey tips

Following each mission, our team fully debriefs and reports to the customer. Here are some highlights from the "Lessons learned" section, which might be helpful in your next survey:

  • If possible, bring a spare UAV – this will hasten the process and ensure you have a spare unit in case of a severe crash.
  • A field repair kit and spare rotors are necessary, as even light damage to one or several may affect productivity and safety.
  • Terrain follow mode is an exceptional tool for keeping the drone safe and the pilot sane on extended BVLOS missions.
  • Pre-load as much map info as possible to make the planning of mission routes faster. There is no Internet coverage in many remote areas, meaning you can only rely on the information you have pre-loaded.
  • Carry a gun or have a guard with your party in the wilderness missions. One night a curious bear came to visit the camp while everyone was asleep, and only a shot fired in the air drove it away.

If you are in the mining and surveying business and looking for a reliable UAV provider to work with you on expeditions – contact