Thinking big to unearth ideas

Flanked by the promotional signs of mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, Shaun Martin and his team are pouring mock "red dirt" into a Tonka truck strapped to an exercise ball.

It may seem ridiculous but Dr Martin and his team Applied Maths Inc are demonstrating a solution to a problem - a solution that could end up saving Rio Tinto's Pilbara iron ore division millions.

And it was all done in the space of 54 hours.

Welcome to Unearthed, the country's first weekend "hackathon" for the mining industry.

Kicking off on Friday night, the event saw Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Gold Fields present real operational problems and data sets to teams of tech-savvy individuals.

After 54 hours of problem solving, the teams developed a solution and presented it to an experienced panel of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and mining executives.

In Applied Maths Inc's case, the problem was a big rock getting caught in the small entry hole of a crusher, forcing production to come to a halt.

Rio's solution had been to crush the large rock manually after stopping production, which could end up costing the global miner up to $250,000 an hour. Rio wanted to know if there was another way.

"We were talking about how to solve it up to 1am this morning," Dr Martin explained after the team presented to a crowd of about 200 at the Spacecubed building on St Georges Terrace on Sunday night. "And it seems like we did pretty well."

Dr Martin, an Oxford University PhD graduate in mathematics, explained the team's solution as using "the physics of shockwaves, which involve higher- order derivatives of acceleration" and "real-time frequency analysis to identify vibrations occurring after impact". In layman's terms, the team worked out a way for an alarm to go off when a large boulder entered the tray of a mining truck, in turn preventing a potential blockage.

The idea won the gold award (a one-ounce gold coin worth $1406 and a $3000 mentorship) and according to Dr Martin some "follow-up" discussions for the idea have been scheduled with Rio.

Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton know all-too-well the cost benefits of technological innovation. And though they required convincing, both giants' willingness to back Unearthed - considering the two companies are rarely seen supporting concurrent events - is a sign of just how important innovation will become.

Event organiser Justin Strharsky, who worked in Silicon Valley before basing himself in Perth, said it was somewhat surprising that more tech start-ups did not focus on the mining industry.

He said they hoped the event would be the first step in exposing mining companies to a start-up's benefits, and vise-versa.

"What Rio and the big mining companies do really well is the kind of innovation underpinned by strategic investment in research and development over a long period," Mr Strharsky said.

"They're not so good at the kind of short-term innovation a tech start-up can deliver. But I don't think the start-ups had the support networks in Perth to do that.

"So hopefully this event will be the start of something big."

'We were talking about how to solve it up to 1am this morning. And it seems like we did pretty well.'" Applied Maths Inc's *Shaun Martin *

The West Australian

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