The Challenge of Mine Tailings Beaches and Elevation Mapping

PhotoSat 1m elevation image of a tailings beach, with 15cm vertical accuracy

Mine tailings beaches are notoriously difficult to monitor. They’re the hardest surveying task at a mine. Data needs to be up to date, but tailings ponds can be huge: Suncor’s tailings ponds cover over 30 square kilometers. Ground survey teams can’t get close enough for safety reasons, and aerial LiDAR data delivery can be frustratingly slow. Low-flying drones are challenged by cold weather, and cannot cover much distance in a day, so are not reliable when measurements are required for a larger area on the same day.

That’s the challenge Suncor faced at its Alberta oil sands mine. Surveying Suncor’s Tailings Reduction Operation (TRO) site meant getting accurate data quickly over a mine site covering over 270 square kilometers. And when Suncor tried using traditional GPS, they found that only about 20% of the site was safe for crews to access. The next step was to try 3D laser scanners, but these simply couldn’t produce enough data fast enough; multiple set-ups were required and yielded sparse data that required significant processing to be comprehensible and usable. This meant adding to an already too-long wait time, as well as additional expense.

Elevation mapping solutions

PhotoSat’s 15cm accuracy satellite topography (DEM) addresses the challenge. Because we use high accuracy satellites, the data is collected safely and easily, reducing the need for ground crews to expose themselves to hazards. And we can collect satellite photos anywhere in the world, making them ideal for remote or challenging terrain.

50cm satellite ortho photo

50cm resolution satellite ortho photo of a tailings beach. © DigitalGlobe 2013

 

PhotoSat elevation image of a tailings beach

PhotoSat 1m elevation image of a tailings beach, with 15cm vertical accuracy

 

Once the satellite imagery has been acquired, we run it through our unique processing system, developed for the industry by us from seismic data processing tools, with engineers in mind.

We have proven the accuracy of our elevation mapping using tens of thousands of ground control points as comparison. Numerous proof of accuracy studies are available on our website.

We map the entire Suncor site every two weeks, providing usable elevation surveys only five days after data acquisition for use in Suncor’s bi-weekly engineering meetings. Our satellite mapping provides an instantaneous snapshot of the entire tailings beach waterline, the geometry of the beaches, and the height of the tailings dykes. We continue to map the Suncor Millennium and Steepbank mines every two weeks, including mapping the Mature Fine Tailings cells in thickness increments of 15cm.

The digital elevation models are also used for mapping windrows, monitoring tailings dykes, calculating volume changes, and verifying the locations of as-built infrastructure. When Suncor’s tailings engineers need to make a decision, they have the reliable, up-to-date data to base it on.

The original presentation made my Suncor at the 2014 Trimble conference that compares PhotoSat mapping to alternatives, can be viewed here.

To learn more or get a quote for topographic mapping for your resource project, contact us at info@photosat.ca or 1-604-681-9770.

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