Digital Mapping will change land and rock surveying

At the beginning of major mining or civil engineering projects, one of the more manual, technically challenging and hazardous tasks involves rock and land surveying.

The process of inspecting rock faces, for example, is a manual one through which geologists measure the failure planes and joints on the rock face in the field. In environments like mine pits, quarries and large construction sites, this has safety implications as people share spaces with large vehicles and plants.

Surveying can also be disruptive and requires formwork such as scaffolding, which is costly and time consuming. With road construction and tunnelling projects, for example, lanes are generally closed and scaffolding is erected or elevated work platforms used so that geologists can reach the cliffs that they need to measure.

Manual mapping processes also face challenges in terms of consistency, sample sizes and quality issues associated with the repetitive nature of data collection tasks.

Thanks to technological advancements, however, land and rock surveying are being transformed by digital mapping. Under this concept, technologies such as drones and UAVs are sent into remote or difficult to access environments to capture data often over a large area. A handful of vendors now offer digital land and rock surveying solutions. In May, multi-national engineering and infrastructure advisory outfit Aurecon announced it was prototyping software which uses drones to capture digital images of rocks and sites in order to create 3D models. The company said it has developed algorithms to extract the data from the photos so that it can automatically identify the areas that need to be measured.

Digital mapping can help to solve problems in several areas. First, there is the issue of inconsistencies in data collection. Under current manual processes, results from the mapping of rock and soil faces vary according to the quality of output (based on involved staff skill level). Moreover, whilst this is a technically challenging task which requires years of experience, the actual logging process is in fact often performed by a relatively junior person.

By eliminating much of the human element associated with data capture, however, digital mapping will provide greater consistency across a range of areas. These include identifying minerals to inform valuable mining plans, excavation plans or foundation planning.

Then, there is the quality and quantity of data. Under current mapping processes, the quality of logging and mapping can be impacted by boredom and repetition. As well, the mapping of large surfaces in open pits, long road cuts or large infrastructure foundation areas is often given to less experienced workers as part of their development. Even where experienced personnel are used – as is often the case, for example, for large dam foundations – the magnitude and repetitive nature of the task involved means this is highly subject to errors.

Under manual processes, the size of the sample taken during ground investigations is also often comparatively small relative to the scale of the overall development. Digital mapping also addresses these issues. First, by automating much of the bulk data capture, it refocuses expert opinion away from this and toward validation and checking. As for the quantity issue, GIS positioning and utilisation of data in spatial models would enables much wider data capture and data mining.

Finally, there are issues such as time and safety. Particularly in spatially extensive environments, such as open pits, long tunnels or road cuttings and quarries, the process of geo-positioning and data is time intensive. As mentioned, manual data capture processes can also see when workers are placed in potentially hazardous situations.

Digital mapping shortens the time frame required for data capture and avoids much of the need for people to enter hazardous environments.

Moreover, when done well, digital mapping offers new opportunities and abilities. Primarily, these revolve around greater consistency of data capture, effective and specially designed data storage. Conversely providing the opportunity to refocus human expertise on interpreting data rather than necessarily capturing the data itself.

Digital mapping enables the ability to overcome current issues in relation to manual tasks as discussed earlier and perform extra tasks that were previously not possible due to limitations of manual surveying. In conclusion providing a holistic view of a site in much less time and effort. Digital mapping will facilitate greater reliability, better safety outcomes and opportunities to optimise the methodologies used for excavation, boring, or founding of infrastructure.

For more information read Andrew Heaton's article on Digital Mapping here