Upgrading India's Cement Industry With Drone Technology

Vipul Singh is the Co-Founder & CEO of Aereo (formerly known as Aarav Unmanned Systems). With expertise in aerospace engineering, he is a thought leader in the Indian drone industry. Vipul speaks about the diverse applications of drone technology and how it can impact the lives of millions of people.

India is the second-largest producer of cement in the world. It accounts for over 7% of total installed capacity globally. Over the last decade, cement consumption has drastically increased. Unlike western nations, India heavily relies on cement for most of its infrastructure requirements. Meeting this growing demand while ensuring sustainability is a crucial step, and drone technology can help us get there faster.

India’s cement production in FY-2022 was 356 million tonnes,while its consumption for the same year stood at around 355.46 million tonnes. Thus, to grow infrastructure development in the country, the Government of India allocated $130.57 billion for the union budget of FY 2022- 2023. That includes the construction of new roads affordable housing for all (Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana), and several other public infrastructures.

Optimizing cement procurement and base rates is necessary because cement is the primary material used in construction. And due to high procurement costs, the quality and quantity of construction projects are compromised. Therefore, targeting the source of the raw material limestone mines is the first step.

With a rapidly growing population of over 1.4 billion people, India’s housing needs are simultaneously increasing. It is projected that by FY 2027, cement consumption will reach over 450 million tonnes per annum. Before we can solve these challenges, let’s understand the problems associated with limestone mining as it is the main raw material in cement.

Optimizing cement procurement and base rates is necessary because cement is the primary material used in construction

Problems with Limestone Mining
Limestone mining is known for its high environmental impact. Pollution caused by dust, effluents, habitat loss, and increased noise pollution are factors that contribute to the negative environmental effects of limestone mining. If these practices are not offset by carbon-sequestering activities, meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) becomes a steep challenge.

Loss of land area, depletion of water resources, and the carbon footprint of limestone mining are constant challenges. Another factor that magnifies these environmental problems is the lack of technological advancement. When compared to global safety and mining standards, Indian mining needs to catch up on several fronts. Traditional methods cap the productivity of these mines by a large margin and also significantly increase safety risks.

Better technology can help make mining efficient, cost-effective, safer, and environmentally compliant. Optimizing limestone mining has a direct downstream impact on the cement industry. Efficient processes help bring down limestone prices. The cascading effect of cheaper limestone is cheaper cement, increased demand, and ramped-up construction in the country.

How Drone Technology Can Help Optimize the Cement Industry
The commercial drone industry is growing exponentially. Despite its nascent stage, drone technology has proven extremely effective in optimizing mining operations. Some of the largest mining companies in India including Coal India Limited(CIL) and Tata Steel use drone-based solutions to make their mines highly efficient.

Mining is one of the riskiest environments. Without proper survey and safety analysis, mines are prone to haul road and OB dump accidents. A few degrees of inaccuracy can severely increase the risk of accidents. Thus, drone data acts as a robust preventive measure.

The primary way of improving efficiency is the digitization of mines. When stakeholders have access to high-resolution iterative data of mines, it becomes easier to spot redundancies and ineffective patterns. Firstly, the direct impact is on cost-effectiveness. Drone surveys and cloud processing are 1/10th the cost of conventional methods such as laser scanners and data labs.

Secondly, rapid aerial data collection makes mine planning and scheduling highly accurate. Any deviation in mine planning is prevented, further adding to cost savings. Therefore, such kind of data helps deliver never seen before business intelligence that brings down the cost of limestone production.

Mining is one of the riskiest environments. Without proper survey and safety analysis, mines are prone to haul road and OB dump accidents. A few degrees of inaccuracy can severely increase the risk of accidents. Thus, drone data acts as a robust preventive measure.

Drone survey helps create datasets such as orthorectified images, digital elevation models, and 3D textured models of the mine site. When hosted on a cloud platform, you can share this data seamlessly without hardware or software limitations. A decade ago, such georeferenced aerial data was either impractical or unavailable. Commercially available drone-based solutions make it possible to collect meticulous data and analyze it to extract deeper analytics. Today, these analytics are able to provide insights on haul road condition, blasting, pit slopes, benches, dump stability, water danger, and a range of crucial mining metrics.

Apart from their usage in limestone mines, drones have a direct application in the cement production process as well. Through drones cement production plants can conduct:

1.Volumetric Estimation of the bulk material used for production of cement; This assessment helps increase accuracy, speed, and frequency of production. It also helps track material movement, consumption, loss, and conduct inventory assessment for better financial management.

2.Scheduled Inspection of factory infrastructure. The infrastructure used in cement production plants are difficult to maintain due to their proportions. Regular drone inspections can help identify bottlenecks before they become major issues.

Creating a Balance Between Productivity and the Planet
Environmental compliance remains one of the most pressing concerns of this industry. Most limestone mines are located in environmentally sensitive areas. Operating in these areas threatens biodiversity. Thus, offset measures are essential to neutralize the impact mining generates. Through drone data, we can estimate how much green cover has been lost. Furthermore, drone data helps track and monitor replantation efforts.

Mines can also benefit from aerial data even before starting operations. By identifying the streams and water bodies around the planned mining site, it’s possible to create a drainage network that does not directly leach into these water bodies. Geospatial mapping can aid analysts in preventing water clogging during monsoons ahead of time. Water clogging can loosen topsoil leading to surface runoff and landslides. Therefore, anticipating these patterns using georeferenced imagery can help mines improve productivity all year round while being mindful of the environment.

All these actions help achieve global standards of production efficiency. The industry must familiarize itself with the potential of drone technology by implementing the same. Industry giants like Ultratech (largest producer of cement in India) are already using drones for planning, scheduling, inventory assessment, slope assessment, and haul road gradient monitoring. With incentives and a push from the government, drone technology can enable the cement industry to grow by leaps and bounds, attain a lower carbon footprint, and make it relatively safer.