Spotting a niche

Charles Darwin left us with more than a model of how the biological world develops. In evolution by natural selection, he provided an analogy for how all sorts of things change over time. And haven’t we seized on it. Almost everything evolves these days, from relationships to economies—but particularly technology.

And the analogy can be quite detailed. For instance, in biology there are often different approaches to solving the same problem. Birds and bats solved the problem of flying at different times in different ways; as did sharks and seals with swimming. The same forces are often at play in the development of technology.

Steep highwall rock faces in open pit mines can collapse with little warning. It seems absurd, but the traditional way of assessing this risk has been to send in a geologist to risk his or her life mapping the rock face from its base or by abseiling down from the top. So CSIRO Exploration and Mining in Brisbane started to develop a system to allow such risk assessment to be undertaken from a safe distance by using remote sensing to generate 3-D computer models of the rock face. At the time, the latest in digital surveying technology, laser ranging, seemed the obvious choice.

CSIRO hired George Poropat to do the job. ‘What we need,’ one of his contacts from the mining industry told him, ‘is some way a geologist can drive up to a point a few hundred metres from the wall, leap out of his truck, take a couple of readings, leap back in again, and send the information off for analysis.’ With its sensitive, bulky equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and requiring time and care to set up, that wasn’t going to be laser ranging.

So Poropat went back to the older system of photogrammetry—merging images taken from two different angles to produce a single 3-D image. It’s an elaboration of how our eyes work. Using the latest digital cameras and cleverly written software, Poropat and his research team have produced SiroVision, which can generate a 3-D model from two photographs. Early on, Poropat took the technology back to the mining industry, and asked them to try it out. That way he received feedback as to exactly what he needed to do to make it useble.

Now according to consultant Paul McConachie of Geotek Pty Ltd in Brisbane, SiroVision is not only useful for determining the risks of working on a particular highwall but, because it’s based on real images, it can simplify communication with those who have to work in the area. It provides them with a picture of exactly where the problems lie.

It’s a great example of the sort of approach that can help to ensure that Australia continues to supply the bulk of the world’s mining software. Just as in the natural world, where the environment selects the fittest to pass on their genetic material to the next generation, in the world of product development, tailoring products to their end use is of paramount importance in determining which of them survive and prosper. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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