Looking out for mining

Drones help mining companies operate safely and efficiently


Drone photography helps Benchmark Engineering by providing birds-eye views of mining operations, like this photo (taken from an airplane) of the shops at United Taconite in Eveleth. Photo by Tucker Nelson.

Drone photography helps Benchmark Engineering by providing birds-eye views of mining operations, like this photo (taken from an airplane) of the shops at United Taconite in Eveleth. Photo by Tucker Nelson.

When Mckenzie Schreffler goes to work, she has a great view of the Iron Range— while keeping her feet on the ground. She is part of the surveying and engineering team at Benchmark Engineering of Mt. Iron, and a large part of her job includes operating unmanned aircraft (drones). Drones are just one example of modern technology that has made mining safer and more efficient.

Mckenzie, who lives in her hometown of Babbitt, has worked for Benchmark since May 2019. She started as an intern during her senior year at Iron Range Engineering (IRE). She recently graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering degree with a focus on electrical engineering.

Mckenzie became interested in getting a drone license to expand her knowledge and learn something new. As drones have increased in popularity, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) now requires commercial drone operators to be licensed, but licenses are not required for personal use. Mckenzie’s license is specifically for flying drones.

Benchmark Engineering uses a drone with rotary wings like those of a helicopter. Other drones have fixed wings and resemble airplanes. According to Mckenzie, Benchmark’s rotary drone can calculate differences in elevation, making it easier to show topography. Technicians can also make 3D models of any property using aerial photos taken in flight.

“Just like any job, operating a drone takes time to understand,” Mckenzie said. “When flying, there has to be a flight path for the drone to follow. Most of the time we make our own flight paths based on the software that comes with the drone. Then we set ground control points inside the flight path. These targets need to be visible in the pic- tures the drone took.”

Mckenzie says each drone is different to operate, and many factors affect how they fly, such as weather and wind speed. For example, Benchmark Engineering’s drone cannot fly in rain or snow, but it can withstand wind gusts of up to 20 miles per hour. Sometimes there are no-fly zones, places where drone are not allowed to fly. The drone cannot go higher than 400 feet above its takeoff position.

Drones are intricate pieces of equipment, and many, like the one Mckenzie uses, have sensors to avoid stationary objects such as power lines and trees. Despite their sophistication, there can be malfunctions. “There’s so many moving and operation parts that even a piece of gravel can affect the wings and gimbal [a camera stabilizer],” Mckenzie said.

Some days at work involve standard surveying tasks like setting and finding property pins or doing boundary surveys. Other times, Benchmark is working on a bike trail or working as far away as Baudette building a bridge across the U.S.-Canada border.

“There is no typical day at Benchmark,” Mckenzie said. “Every day is different, and that is what I enjoy about my job.”

Benchmark Engineering has worked for Iron Range mines for years. Crew members find property lines and stake out blast patterns. Drone operators like Mckenzie help update mining maps, assist with pellet audits, and monitor water levels in and around the pits.

Her job is important for data collection, which makes the mining process easier and faster. With her drone, she can photograph areas that surveyors can’t safely access on foot.

“I would say I’ve learned more about safety and how much care there is for others,” Mckenzie said about her first year of working with mining companies. “I’ve become more aware of the history of mining. I’ve also learned that the production trucks are bigger in person.”

Mckenzie enjoys working outside and getting to different things every day. “I enjoy the atmosphere and people at Benchmark,” she said. “Benchmark has given me opportunities to expand my surveying skills and also gain more knowledge in civil engineering.”

“One of my favorite areas to view through the drone is when it is directly above a mine pit,” said Mckenzie, “And I can see how every machine and person is essential in the process of mining. A site that I enjoy in person is close to the Laurentian Divide. It’s maybe a little higher than the divide, but when you look in all directions, you can see for miles—all the small towns and mining locations.”

Mckenzie would someday like to spot a moose antler or deer shed with a drone. When she isn’t at work, she enjoys snowmobiling, snowboarding, and ice fishing in winter and kayaking, fishing, and spending time with her family in summer.

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