A group of Indonesian miners might owe their lives to the company that topped Australia’s Most Innovative Companies list this week.
Groundprobe, a Brisbane start-up bought by mining services giant Orica for $205 million in December, received the honour – bestowed by innovation consultancy Inventium and a panel of expert judges – for its light detection and ranging (LiDAR) system that it claims is able to detect sub-millimetre movements in rocks, versus the two-centimetre-plus accuracy range of existing LiDAR collapse detection solutions.
After launching last October, Groundprobe’s Geotech Monitoring LiDAR (GML) system – which for the first time allows the company to predict collapses in underground mines – was involved in a “shooting match” against an incumbent at an Indonesian mine, chief executive John Beevers told The Australian Financial Review.
“There was a section which GML told us was going to collapse tomorrow; the other systems they had there said it wouldn’t,” he recalled.
“In any case they evacuated and sure enough it came down. There’s a really scary photo of one of the miners standing at this spot giving the thumbs up which was rubble a few hours later.”
Groundprobe cannot identify the Indonesian mine involved for privacy reasons, but Mr Beevers is able to share another project where lives and livelihoods are depending on GML.
At Colombia’s Hidroituango Hydroelectric Dam, a series of landslides since April have blocked a water exit tunnel and the dam is facing collapse.
“Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated downstream, and 250,000 people’s lives are at risk if it collapses. The experts are calling it potentially the second biggest engineering disaster in history after Chernobyl,” Mr Beevers said.
Groundprobe’s GML is monitoring all the other tunnels in the dam and providing data about the stability of the structure, to help planners manage the crisis.
GML had less auspicious beginnings two years ago, when Groundprobe’s head of technology Lachlan Campbell approached the company’s radar physicists about an idea to make its LiDAR more accurate.
“They said there’s no way it’s going to work, so we ended up partnering with University of Queensland. There was an emeritus professor over there who had a look and thought it could work,” Mr Campbell said.
Even before its acquisition by Orica last year, Groundprobe had long since outgrown its scrappy start-up phase so Mr Beevers decided to house the LiDAR project outside its headquarters.
“We gave it a bit of internal funding, built a tin shed with four folding chairs and some bad coffee,” he said.
“Because if you embed it in the big corporate culture it can be hard to generate that start-up feel. We needed the guys to stay focused on how they could get revenue as fast as they can, because then you’re not just focused on the technical, you’re focused on the customer.”
The group’s radar physicist team readily supported the new product once it had received academic imprimatur, Mr Beevers said.
“They weren’t black-hat naysayers, they just needed a bit of rational persuasion from another smart person that this could work, and then they got on with it.”
In an example of the sort of academia-business collaboration that Innovation & Science Australia is trying to encourage, Groundprobe sponsored a University of Queensland student to do his thesis on running the LiDAR experiments the company is now using to prove its concept in mines around the world.
“The second he graduated we hired him and he is now the lead engineer on GML,” Mr Beevers said.