December 2018

Geological mapping in a connected world

  • By Jason Beltran and Ben Jupp, SRK Consulting

Advances in geographic information and analysis systems have led to more streamlined and simple data capture processes, allowing increased accuracy, reliability and efficiency in mapping.

Geological mapping and field data collection are fundamental components of any successful mineral exploration program. The technologies available to field geologists to conduct mapping and sampling have changed dramatically over the years.

As geographic information (GIS) and data analysis systems continue to improve, the devices we use to collect and interact with geological data are getting smarter and smaller. Developments in portable GIS devices and software advancements have enabled geologists to use paperless workflows, allowing data to be collected, integrated and interpreted in the field and integrated in a centralised exploration database.

Traditional paper maps are static and limited to the size of the paper on which they are printed. This can result in difficulty viewing the detail when maps portray extensive spatial information. The solution is either to split the map into different map sheets, or to remove some of the features shown, which makes them difficult to use in the field and lessens the value to the end user.

But in a digitally connected world, we can take advantage of rapidly changing mobile device developments by using portable smart devices – mobile phones and tablets – as tools for collecting and sharing mapping data. This approach means GIS functionality is no longer limited to the office, enabling accurate digital maps to be produced collaboratively in a shorter timeframe, and without limitations in terms of size and scale.

GIS functionality is no longer limited to the office, enabling accurate digital maps to be produced collaboratively.

GIS has traditionally been used in geology predominantly as a map-making tool. However, with recent advances in GIS functionality, it has become fundamental for geologists to better understand and compare data and apply advanced analytical toolsets. The ability to rapidly integrate and assess new data as it becomes available allows geologists to test ideas and progress projects in shorter timeframes than previously possible in the paper world. SRK has developed a system of leveraging custom in-house mapping using ArcGIS technology initially developed by ESRI. The system called SRK.IS (for ‘information system’), is designed to work in conjunction with web apps that are customised for a specific client or project. SRK.IS integrates digital data collection in the field with a centralised database, making it possible for maps and other geographical information to be accessed in real time, and shared by multiple users simultaneously.

The key advantage of this system is that it offers different connection options, depending on whether the data is being collected in the field, or being viewed or edited in an office environment. Data can be transferred from programs like ESRI’s ArcMap or ArcPro to a web app and then published to a map server, giving users the ability to interact with the map through a web browser without the need for specialised GIS software. This also allows office-based geologists to better manage field operations and gives field geologists improved insight to make decisions on the spot based on real-time data. Employing a centralised data storage server maintains a single point of truth, making the latest captured and interpreted data available to the whole team. This in turn improves data quality, resulting in better interpretations and clearer decision making.

For data collection, the system connects users to a dedicated data collection app, which can be used on Android, iOS and Windows mobile devices. The data is customised according to the requirements of the mapping task, and data pre-filling options (ie drop-down lists) can be activated to save time and reduce exposure to human error with respect to data entry. Digital photos – taken with the same smartphone or tablet – can be attached to a datapoint so that the location of each photo is automatically georeferenced.

Users can download maps beforehand, so that offline data collection can be carried out in remote locations where there is no internet or mobile connection. Later, when internet connection service is available, the offline data can be synced back to the centralised database and integrated with existing data. This allows the data to be version controlled, enforcing the ‘single point of truth’ for the most up-to-date data.

SRK’s information system can be accessed via a web browser with an interface that works in a similar way to the Google Maps application – by toggling between different map layer options, users have control on the type of geospatial information they wish to view.

For viewing and editing mapping data, office-based ArcGIS administrators can log in to the portal to view mapping progress in real time. A key benefit is that the data can be edited, then synced back to users in the field – reducing the time lag as a result of having to wait until the map is produced before being able to process any required edits. This has proven to be beneficial in managing teams working in remote areas of Africa and South America who are not able to return to an office environment to upload data. By enabling remote and office-based users to collaborate more effectively, it’s possible for maps to be produced by multiple parties seamlessly. This means maps can be completed in a shorter timeframe than has previously been possible.

The SRK.IS system has been succesfully employed by SRK’s geology team to collect data, manage field teams and deliver ongoing data to clients for various projects across Australasia, Africa and South America, and has provided a valuable environment for field geologists and office teams to effectively communicate and share information.

The technology is currently being used in an exploration campaign in western Victoria to streamline the data collection and interpretation process.

To date, this exploration project has involved multiple field mapping, rock chip and soil sampling programs using a portable X-ray flourescence (pXRF) device. Geological data and sample metadata is captured using a smartphone, which allows for numerous georeferenced basemap layers such as geological maps, aerial photography or geophsyics to be easily viewed in the field. This allows field geolgists to better interpret what they are observing in the field at the time, rather than waiting to integrate and interpret the data at a later stage. The ability to view this data in real time and make faster decisions has significantly improved the quality of field observations captured.

Using these digital devices, data capture is streamlined and simple. The connected data collection system also allows for all photographic information to be geotagged. Using the pXRF in tandem has also proven a straightforward process, with digital exports from the device able to be easily ingrated with field observations on a daily basis. This information is then mapped in GIS and provided to office-based geologists for review and interpretation. This rapid interpretation of results has enabled a more focused field mapping and sampling operation that targets prospective areas as they are identified. This allows information gaps to be identified faster and avoids potentially missing key areas and adding time to the project.

This data collection protocol has assisted clients in identifying target areas by recognising outcropping mineralisation or structural interpretations, and where data is sufficient, has provided a testable geological model within a faster timeframe. In many cases, surface mapping data is then able to be incorporated into 3D geological models, leading to better constrained geological domains and ultimately a more reliable resource estimation.

Having access to data at an earlier stage in a field program allows clients to make decisions in near real time, allowing for more refined target exploration. This streamlined process for data capture and interpretation ultimately reduces costs for exploration companies.

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