Deep underground, what can you hear? Dr Lotter is using mathematics to solve real life problems
It can cost mining companies around a million dollars to drill multiple boreholes to survey the underground and find ore deposits. Imagine if they could access the underground in ‘x-ray style’ through an innovative Tasmanian-based company for one tenth of the price. Dr Ernest Lotter and his team do just that.
Dr Lotter completed his PhD in mathematics at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa in 2007. He loved his maths but felt something was missing. He wanted to see results in the physical world, not only in theory.
“I loved mathematics,” explains Dr Lotter. “But it was very abstract and difficult to apply to real world situations. It wasn’t until I was put in touch with the head of a seismology company, the Institute of Mine Seismology (IMS), in South Africa that I thought about what else was possible through my study. I was living in a bubble of academia and when this opportunity came up while finishing my PhD, I took it.” He has worked for the company ever since and is now Managing Director of IMS and Head of Computational Seismology.
When it was time to choose a home base for the institute, the team took a global approach. “In 2010 we decided to leave South Africa and head for a place that suited the lifestyle we were after. We wanted somewhere green where the lifestyle and cost of living was attractive, somewhere we could mountain bike in our free time and raise our families,” explains Dr Lotter. “We chose Tasmania for our headquarters for these very reasons and we currently service more than 200 mines worldwide from this location. We also have offices in Canada and South Africa to ensure we cover other time zones because service is paramount.”
The company relocated from South Africa with eight staff and now have a 30-strong team of professionals from countries including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Russia, South America, Poland, and Slovakia. But it’s home turf that garners their best recruits.
“We tend to hire people straight from the University of Tasmania (UTAS),” says Dr Lotter. “We want people who are fresh and who can fit into a small and agile start-up. Most of our team is relatively young – in fact we have only two in our team over 50 years of age and many of us have young families.”
“The team reflects a young start-up company feel, with most in our 20s and 30s. Tasmania couldn’t be better in this respect. It’s exciting to hire young, energetic UTAS graduates and we now have five as part of our team.” To improve their capacity, IMS are actively hiring more graduates.
The team hire a range of expertise from applied maths and physics to those with seismology backgrounds and computer science. From software development, product design and research to installation on site, IMS looks for those interested in creative mining solutions.
Dr Lotter’s main work is developing seismological methods and algorithms, requiring him to travel across the globe, while his young family is based in Tasmania. Research and development that began in South Africa in the 1980s now services clientele in over 40 countries.
IMS is at the forefront of their field. “We monitor micro earthquakes all over the world, assisting in the safety of mining operations. The team can pick up seismic waves with micro-metre accuracy through seismic sensors. But we are also dealing with anything from monitoring deep seismic events in South African gold mines, to real-time monitoring of tailings dam stability in Brazil, to monitoring nuclear waste repositories in Europe through to keeping an eye on the safety of miners working underground in Australia.”
The team is also involved in seismic exploration and the usage of ambient noise for (amongst others) dam monitoring that can be used as an early warning system for problems that could lead to collapse.
“We are their ear to the ground so to speak,” describes Dr Lotter. “We focus on safety when a village is at risk of flooding, we can focus where stress levels are intense for an underground mine in Chile and we can deliver the hardware, software, forensic analysis, routine services and daily reports to ensure safety and peace of mind for stakeholders in the mine.”
“When I was a student, I could solve these academic problems and not have to worry about application, but my thinking evolved. Now I can do research and development that delivers something useful with a practical application, which is quite satisfying.”
Today the team call Tasmania home. Worldwide customer service is their highest priority, and biking up kunanyi / Mount Wellington at the end of the day comes a close second.
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Find out more about IMS.
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