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Drones help Yukon prospectors find gold deposits

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic

A gold prospector from Canada’s northwestern Yukon territory is using unmanned aerial drones and other technologies to survey huge stretches of land for mineral deposits, and leaving less of an environmental footprint in the process.

Shawn Ryan says the technology is greatly reducing the cost of doing business in the initial stages of mineral exploration.

The drones he uses look a bit like a medium-sized kite, and carry a relatively simple 16-megapixel camera on board. It flies over a target area, snapping photos of the ground.

He and his team also do geophysical surveys of the area -- they string out a 1,377-foot cable over an area that soil sampling has already indicated may have potential. The cable has electrodes spaced out every five metres that send electrical currents about 300 feet down into the ground and can show faults or cracks that may contain gold.

Then they take a geoprobe of the area. It’s about the size of a riding mower with rubber tracks on it to minimize environmental damage. At predetermined points, the probe pushes a hollow tube into the ground until it reaches bedrock where it takes samples, including a laser beam than detects mineralization.

The whole process replaces the far more labor-intensive trenching that was done until last year. Then all the information from the drone, the electrodes and the probe is put into a computer to create a 3D map with a lot of information about the area that will be used to better pinpoint the drilling that will follow.

Work that took a year and a half to get done can now take only two to three weeks to do. That’s making it easier for junior miners to better pinpoint where they should concentrate their drilling programs, and leaving a smaller environmental footprint along the way.

“The way the whole market is working is they’re running out of money and everybody’s even edgier now to actually put money into our business,” Ryan says.

“What this is going to allow us to do is process a lot of targets really quick.”

Lower costs

Ryan says it’s reduced the cost of initial exploration to about one fifth of what it was before. And the drones are always improving -- his innovations this summer include drones that allow for better mapping and a machine that lets crews take samples in the field much faster.

His coworker Isaac Fage says the technology has huge potential. “[We're] bringing new surveys online to the industry and bringing them to the industry in a way that the companies have confidence that these tools are effective and basically adding value to the property,” he says.

Lee Pigage, the head of the Yukon Geological Survey says the government is also interested in what Ryan is doing. “I think it’s got great potential,” Pigage says. “Every exploration company, every exploration geologist, every prospector wants to have a toolbox, a set of different types of tools that they can do things with.”

The territorial government is paying Ryan’s crew to do seven or eight case studies on existing properties, to see what they can come up with. They’re using these methods at some prominent other mining properties in the territory that include Alexco’s silver mines in the Keno City area where they can test the results against surveys that have already been done.

The results of those case studies will be released at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference in Toronto in March, which is one of the world’s largest mining conventions.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.