October 2015

From the archives: The development of computer-assisted mapping and modelling (1983)

  • By B Gariepy, Senior Industry Specialist; A Gaudin, Systems Engineer, and M Johnson, Associate Industry Specialist; IBM Australia

This paper is an extract from the 1983 Computers in Mining Symposium hosted by the AusIMM Southern Queensland Branch.

With the advent of computer-aided mapping and surface modelling techniques, geologists and engineers have had to become familiar with the capabilities and limitations of these systems to effectively use them. In this paper we will trace a short history of the rather rapid progress in this area. From this historical perspective we will make some observations and use these to guess at what the future holds. We hope that this paper will assist in clarifying the developments in computer-assisted mapping and modelling, and promote thought on how these techniques may be best applied to the problems of the mineral industry.

The 17th century mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz said ‘It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labour of calculations’. Today we see a new set of technologies delivered in the shape of digital computers that can free people from the toils of calculation. But how do we do this? What is the best way to take advantage of a computer’s powers? In the area of mapping and surface modelling, it is apparent that huge amounts of time can be saved in calculating and producing the surface representations that mining professionals need and use. Just think of the case of producing a formation thickness map from random data points. Ten minutes work on many of the modern mapping and surface modelling systems (we will alternately call these computer systems) but how long by hand?

For the purposes of this paper we will define computer-assisted mapping and surface modelling systems as any computer-based system used to produce maps or models from geological or mine information. These may be block, square grid, mesh, contour, perspective, or any combination of these and other techniques of representation.

Advantages of computer-assisted mapping and surface modelling techniques are apparent. Problems lie in implementing these systems in a way that takes full advantage of a computer system’s power and at the same time provides a service to its users that is appropriate, easy to learn, easy to use and is at a justifiable cost.

The balancing of these aspects requires knowledge of the problems to be solved, the abilities of available technologies, and the costs and benefits of solving the problems to be addressed.

Eras of computer development

Although computer vendors do not often admit it, surface modelling and mapping, mine planning and mine scheduling were being performed, and quite effectively so, long before computers were invented. Although the manual methods used were time consuming and tedious, they produced excellent results as the interpreter, whether geologist or engineer, was literally forced to fully utilise their interpretative skills.

When computers first entered into general usage for mining is not a point worth debating. However, it would be fair to state that computing capabilities in the late 1950s and early 1960s were not in-line with the needs of geologists and mining engineers. Everything seemed against the use of known mathematics and methods on computers as the computers of those days were expensive, had limited memory, were too slow and had essentially no graphics capabilities. There were no commercially available software
packages for exploration and exploitation of minerals.

As such, any geological or engineering organisations that were powerful enough to get computer time away from an accounting organisation were forced into developing their own computer-assisted capabilities.

In the mid-1960s, significant improvements in computing facilities became available. Computers were still expensive, but were now much faster and had much larger memories. We could run several programs concurrently and magnetic media offered a better and faster way to store and retrieve information.

The late 1960s through the mid-1970s saw significant improvements in computing facilities. Better, the mining community came to the conclusion that computer vendors would only be able to provide hardware and general purpose software for the exploration and exploitation of minerals. As such, excellent software became commercially available and, in our opinion, computer vendors relinquished their mining software development role to mining companies and third parties specialising in mining.

It would take a paper 20 times as long as this to explain the wonders available today. There is a wide range of commercially available software for exploration and exploitation of minerals. Some of this software has been developed in Australia and may well be classed as the equal of any software developed anywhere. If you are in need of software for exploration and exploitation of minerals, you do not have to go overseas to find it and, since it was developed in Australia, it directly addresses what some might term the unique Australian conditions.

The cost of computing

A large part of upsurge in the use of computer technology for mapping and modelling work has been driven by the decrease in cost of computer hardware. The decrease in these costs has allowed the use of far more comprehensive software. This is through the increased function available in software and the increased data volumes that can be processed without an associated cost penalty. So let’s look at the movements in the costs associated with computer technology over the recent past. Let us take an approximate reference point for our small study. We will use 1980 as the year of reference and will consider a computer system of around $400 000 value in 1980. We will not delve into the details of what such a system looks (and performs) like but this is probably the size of system many Australian companies have installed to utilise modern mapping systems along with other computing work. We will let you put your own model identification and performance figures on that price tag. We will call it an XYZ System. Let us also look at a base salary in 1980 so that we may compare the costs of people and computer hardware over time. We will use the base of $19 500, which was the average annual earnings of coal industry employees in Australia in the 1979-1980 financial year.

Historically, though, wages have increased and the cost of an XYZ System equivalent has decreased. In 1970 a system equivalent to our modern day XYZ System would have cost around $3.2 million, which is eight times the current cost of an XYZ System. In the same year the annual average earnings of coal industry employees was $5700. So in the ten years from 1970 to 1980 the cost of computer hardware has reduced by a factor of eight while salaries in the coal industry have increased over three times.

Computer systems are getting cheaper while labour becomes more expensive. Let us consider this in the near term. In 1985, under historic rates, an XYZ equivalent system would cost $140 000 while our average wage would be $35 600; and in 1990, the XYZ would cost $59 000 and our average wage would be $66 000 … thought provoking statistics.

There is also another factor to be considered in the costs of computer systems and that is software. Software is in reality a labour related cost. In the computer industry software is looked at frequently in terms of man/months. The cost to write a program has risen with the costs of labour although some advances in technology have reduced the time required to write this program, hence softening this effect. We will discuss this in a little more detail later.

Implications

Applications

The most obvious development of the past 25 years has been the increase in the amount of work the computer has been able to do for geologists and engineers. From the early days of cards and primitive plots to the sophisticated plotters, digitisers, graphics devices and software that is available today there has been a large jump in the effectiveness of computer-assisted mapping and surface modelling tools. The movement has been from generalised software that addressed the general problems of surfaces and randomly spaced variables to software that specifically addresses the problems of geologists and engineers such as reserve estimation, mine planning and geological modelling.

A second component of this development is the extension of the range of tools available for geoscience professionals to perform their jobs. Geostatistics provides a prime example. The increased use of Kriging techniques has mainly been through computer systems. Here the voluminous statistical calculations are easily addressed by cheap computer power.

These two trends will continue into the future. The ability to auto-correlate geological data, tie geophysical information into modelling procedures, effectively manipulate geological discontinuities, and optimise mine geometries are all possible extensions of the scope of applications in the mineral industry. There will also be a broadening in the techniques used in these applications. Along the lines of geostatistics; where once geologists used experience and subjectivity to estimate values in mineral deposits, we may see many of the skills that are thought to be subjective augmented by new techniques.

The implications are that in the future computers will do even more of the fundamental steps in the job of a geologist or engineer. For this to succeed, work needs to be done in quantifying some of the techniques used by geologists and engineers. The aim is not to replace the skills of a geologist or engineer but present information more succinctly so that those skills can be applied and the results of that work made available as quickly as possible. The computer systems of the future will allow geologists and engineers to more easily apply their skills and promote creativity in approach by reducing the time lags that stifle creativity.

Technology

We have already discussed the reduction in costs of computer hardware. There are other effects, though, that will be seen in the way we use computers in the future. One of these factors is the decrease in size of computers. In the near future computer terminals will become part of the office equipment the way telephones are today. How many people share telephones today? There has also been a strong increase in the ability of computers to communicate. With an Australian domestic satellite soon due for launching reliable communications should be available nation-wide.

A probable movement in the near future will be to local processing units providing processing power at the appropriate location and large centralised machines managing data and communications systems within an organisation. The processing power may eventually sit on your desk, like a modern personal computer except with much more power, and act as your diary, calculator, computer, mailing system, typist, draftsman and filing system.

The implication of this is tremendous in the mineral industry where distance and remoteness have a major effect on the way jobs are approached. With reliable communications, field geologists could be entering their well logs day to day, receiving their lab reports, creating deposit models and performing geostatistics to optimise exploration programs from the field. The same information would be available to engineers to perform preliminary feasibility work elsewhere. Information will be deliverable when and where you want it. Of course this implies that one must carefully consider the way communication systems for organisations are set up so that extension into the far more rewarding communications systems of the near future does not become difficult. In the near future we will see a boom in communications the way we saw a boom in computing over the past 25 years.

A further by-product of the drop in computer hardware costs is the practicality of software that operates at a higher level of complexity but presents a simplified appearance to its users. This high level software was previously held back because of its higher use of computer resources but with the swing in costs toward cheaper computers this argument has diminished. This flows though in providing the users of modern computer systems with a far more friendly environment than in the past. This is due to removing users from the nitty-gritty of computer systems and providing them with tools that are closer to the language they understand. This movement will continue with the ultimate aim – a computer that can operate on spoken English commands. The immediate aim, though, is a computer that understands simple English-like commands. Many software products are approaching this today.

Conclusion

More and more sophisticated tools are being made available to geologists and engineers. The sophistication of these tools will not be a means to an end, rather, in the hands of a skilled interpreter, they will provide some part of the means to an end.

As such, we submit that the mining industry’s geologists and engineers are not a vanishing breed. Rather, they are and will continue to be the critical variables in the exploration and exploitation equation.

Feature image: CC Daniel Bagel.

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