Drones and probes could find the mother lode

Shawn Ryan, the famed Yukon prospector credited with discovering Dawson's White Gold district, says he's poised to revolutionize the exploration industry again.

Shawn Ryan, the famed Yukon prospector credited with discovering Dawson’s White Gold district, says he’s poised to revolutionize the exploration industry again.

His company, GroundTruth Exploration, is piloting new technologies that promise to figure out exactly where the gold is in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the price.

“What we can do for $100,000, minimum, it would cost them $500,000 last year,” said Ryan.

Using well-tested soil-sampling techniques, exploration companies can figure out which areas are most likely to have gold underneath.

But the tricky part comes next: turning an area of interest into a proven resource.

“It’s like if there’s lots of smoke in there, but you don’t quite know where the fire is,” said Ryan.

The next step used to be digging trenches and drilling holes to get a better sense of what lies beneath. Both of these are expensive and time-consuming processes.

So, Ryan and his team had another idea.

The first thing they do is bring in a drone to do an aerial survey of the area.

The drone is small and lightweight, like a high-tech remote control plane fitted with a camera.

Ryan brought the technology in from Switzerland, and it is the first drone of its kind in Canada, he said.

With a half-hour drone flight and few hours of processing, prospectors can generate both a detailed aerial picture and topographical map of the area, said Ryan.

That helps give the team a good sense of the lay of the land, and where to focus their efforts.

The next step is to put electrodes in the ground at five-metre intervals. The sensors are used to get a high-resolution picture of the electrical resistance of the ground underneath, up to about 90 metres down, said Ryan.

The technology has been used before, but mostly in the environmental side of the geophysics world, he said. It is useful for looking for water or contaminants in soil, and is used both in the United States and Alberta.

It hadn’t been used before in this way for hard rock exploration because of the limited depth that it can measure, said Ryan.

“Most of the hard rock world is looking for deposits that are quite deep. In Yukon we have a unique opportunity that we’re looking in the top couple of hundred feet.”

Last fall Ryan and his team decided to take the plunge and give it a try. They bought the equipment, sent people to Texas for training, and tested the technology by using it to map known mineral deposits near Dawson.

“It worked better than we ever imagined it would work. We could actually nail known ore deposits down to the metre with one afternoon pass with these instruments.”

The resulting underground maps give a good idea of where minerals might be found, but further exploration is required to actually find out if it is there.

Instead of using an excavator to dig a trench a metre deep over a target area that could be kilometres long, Ryan brings in a piece of machinery called a geoprobe.

It’s about 1.5 metres wide, and sits on wide rubber tracks that have minimal impact on the ground cover. The operator walks behind the probe, directing it by remote control.

Every five metres, the machine probes about nine metres down. It takes a core sample, but it also uses what Ryan calls a “laser beam zapper gun” to test for minerals in the ground.

The camp may be only a couple of guys in pup tents, but with a satellite dish they can beam data back to headquarters anywhere in the world. Results can be processed overnight, and by morning the team has a clear direction for the next day’s work.

As a result, a picture of the gold and other minerals underground can be achieved faster, cheaper, and with very little disturbance to the environment, said Ryan.

“I think it’s going to be a win-win for everybody, because it’s probably the most environmentally friendly prospecting I could ever think about right now.”

With this technology, an exploration campaign that would have previously taken a year and half can be done in about three weeks, said Ryan.

His hope is that all of this will help to build the prospects of the White Gold district, which he estimates could have six to seven million ounces of proven gold resources already.

The world’s attention was drawn to the area with mining giant Kinross gobbled up the White Gold property in 2010.

If a few million more ounces are discovered nearby, it could tip the scales in favour of mine development, said Ryan.

“I call it chiseling my way up to the 8-10 million ounce mark.”

A small discovery here or there might not get much interest, but several of these clustered together could, and this is what Ryan expects will happen in the area over the next three or four years.

“I know it’s going to come back. What I like about it, when it does come back next time, we’ll have this new technology perfectly down pat, unquestionable that it’s working. Boom.”

Ryan knows that advances in technology can change the game for exploration companies. He has done it before.

Back in 2002, there was only $7 million in exploration money being spent across the Yukon, he said.

That’s when Ryan was first staking the White Gold district, getting a toehold in the area and working to prove that soil sampling on a large scale really works, he said.

His work perfecting soil sampling techniques meant that when the boom came, he was ready for it.

“It took a few years, and then it took off like wildfire.”

Now, GroundTruth Exploration is doing contract work for junior mining companies in the Dawson area, trying to catch them up in areas of interest that have been discovered but not explored.

Ryan’s work has also caught the attention of the Yukon government, which has hired his team to use this technology to map out proven resources across the territory.

That work will not only serve as further opportunity to show that the methods work, but also allow the process to be tweaked for different types of ore deposits.

The outcomes of that research will be published in a bulletin, to be presented at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference in Toronto in March.

The results could revolutionize exploration not only in the Yukon, but across the world.

“They could use this in Chile, in Argentina, they could use this in Sweden and Finland,” said Ryan.

Ryan and his crew accomplished this with a lot of hard work and imagination, but very little formal training.

“We’re not PhD guys, or anything like that. We’re just kind of a little bit better than bush rats.”

While this can be confusing for others in the industry, the results speak for themselves, said Ryan.

“Their mouths drop open. ‘Oh my God, this is ridiculously good.’”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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