The minerals resources industry faces unique challenges to locating ore bodies in Australia. Not only do researchers have to cover vast land areas in limited time, they often do so in extreme temperatures and difficult terrain. However, digital technology may hold the key to overcoming these challenges and improving data collection. LOUISE POBJOY reports
Minerals exploration across large, remote and inhospitable areas, like some regions of Australia, can be extremely challenging, labour intensive and expensive.
CSIRO is embracing digital technology to make surveying even the most isolated areas more efficient, easier, cheaper and safer.
CSIRO has been working with industry and universities to explore how two digital tools – mobile apps and drones – could transform minerals exploration in Australia and around the world.
Digital tools in the field
One of these tools is the FAIMS i.e. Field Acquired Information Management Systems mobile field app.
This automated system was originally developed at Macquarie University to record archaeology data, including samples, GPS coordinates, photos and notes.
Using CSIRO's paper-based data collection tools as a starting point, its developers created a geochemistry module.
"When you use this app in the field, you know where you are, what the time it is, what you’re doing, who you are, what campaign you’re on," CSIRO Geoscience Analytic Team Leader, Dr Jens Klump, says.
"Any additional information then boils down to just a few drop-down menus, and maybe a note and taking a photo, and everything is documented."
"We had immediate take up because it saves so much time. Geochemists love it."
Geochemical survey of the Nullarbor Plain
CSIRO Team Leader for Minerals and Water, Dr Nathan Reid, has used the app in several major CSIRO projects, including a recent geochemical survey of the Nullarbor Plain.
"By using the app, we shaved time by about 40 or 50%, which, when you’re using a helicopter, literally time is money with the amount of fuel you're burning," he says.
FAIMS improves data quality, accuracy and consistency by reducing human error during recording and transcribing.
It even produces barcodes to stick onto sample bags, so researchers don’t need to write IDs and other details on them.
The app automatically uploads data onto a portable server, which increases data security and makes it easy for researchers to work in very remote locations, because they don't need Wi‑Fi or phone networks.
Field data processed quickly and efficiently
This means data can be processed more quickly and strategic decisions can be made in close to real time, leading to more efficient operations and cost savings.
"Introducing this new technology into fieldwork really gives us the opportunity to make the whole process more dynamic and to feed back what we have learned from analysing the data much more quickly. This makes the whole exploration process much more efficient," Dr Klump says.
FAIMS is relatively inexpensive, so could benefit smaller companies by giving them more affordable options to produce better results.
It could also make fieldwork safer, by reducing the time researchers spend in the field, and marking hazards and fencing-off areas.
A model of data capture for other industries
Over the past few years, CSIRO has worked with several companies successfully using the app, including the Geological Survey of Queensland and Geological Survey of NSW.
While the focus so far has been on minerals exploration, Dr Reid believes FAIMS could be adapted for almost any industry that collects data outside, including agriculture and ecology.
"At the end of the day, this is just a data capturing mechanism. The idea is to make something that you can adapt to make a workflow," he says.
Drones in mineral exploration
In addition to FAIMS, CSIRO sees drones as promising exploration tools.
It recently received its operator’s license – the first large, interstate organisation in Australia to do so – and has started collaborating with Monash University on drone data processing.
According to Dr Klump, there's a gap in the information that can be gathered from air- and space-borne surveys and ground-based surveys – and drones are ideal for filling it.
High resolution data
"Drones allow us to cover relatively large areas compared to somebody walking in the field, and provide data at a much higher resolution than aircraft do, because they fly closer to the ground. It’s cheap, it’s high resolution and it's fast," he says.
Drones are already widely used for safety, for shark spotting and marking edges of bushfires, so, like FAIMS, could be used to improve safety in exploration by identifying dangers like geohazards, landslides and sinkholes.
For example, Hovermap technology developed by CSIRO’s Data61 is giving operators insights beyond what the eye can see into areas that have not been mapped before. Hovermap's advanced autonomy capabilities allow you to unlock above and below ground data with confidence and safety.
It also has the versatility to let users switch easily from drone to handheld use, backpack or vehicle-mounted scanning, enabling the collection of critical data both from the air and on the ground.
Currently, CSIRO is collaborating with industry and universities here and overseas to develop and integrate FAIMS and drone technology.
When it comes to FAIMS, Dr Reid tells us his team is looking to create a workflow generator and modules that can be tailored to individual company needs.
Towards a simple, integrated data collection and cleaning system
"We're also looking at how to upgrade the hardware and server box, and make that into a simple, off-the-shelf product," he says.
And when it comes to drones, Dr Klump explains the plan is to put more processing power on the aircraft to allow for data pre-processing and cleaning, without having to download raw data that needs to be processed later.
"A package of app, machine learning and drone could make exploration more accessible, because it would be easier and cheaper to produce high-quality data on relatively large scales compared to today," he says.