Computer Scientists Examining Common Problems for Better Solutions
Benjamin Meyer’s career in IT led him down the nontraditional path to becoming a student at the University of Arizona. Meyer is a Research and Development Software Engineer at the Geotechnical Center of Excellence and he’s also an undergraduate at the University of Arizona studying Computer Science.
After spending years as an IT professional and troubleshooting technology issues, Meyer wanted to learn how to make software better from the beginning. Meyer spent time as an intern on a project with the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, examining samples from asteroids and working for a NASA funded project. While Meyer was offered a job at LPL after graduating, he wasn’t sure if this was the path he wanted to pursue.
Meyer came across this job after asking Leonard Brown, Director of the Mining Safety & Health Training Resource Center, for insight. Dr. Brown suggested the GCE, which was hiring a software engineer and after interviewing with Brad Ross, Co-Director of the GCE, Meyer was brought onto the team.
How can computers be used to detect rockfall? Can a computer program be used to signal alarms for when rockfall is detected in an open pit mine or other features with slopes?
Meyer is researching how computer vision can be used to track motion in a slope to create an algorithm to detect rockfall. This program is being created by analyzing over 45,000 hours of data collected from various mine sites using different thermal cameras and one video camera. While machine learning and AI are major buzzwords in mining, this particular context isn’t a good candidate for machine learning.
“Machine learning has difficulty with quickly-moving amorphous small targets which lack the types of internal characteristics we would use to track cars or people via AI,” says Meyer. The targets are the rockfall that would need to be detected with minute motion in order to start alarms.
Thermal cameras are able to detect way more than visual cameras in this context, where even the most minimal motion can be seen from larger distances. Thermal cameras can also overcome issues of light visibility and can see in dark conditions. They can also provide some insight to other features that could be potential hazards in slope stability, such as water, differences in temperature and predictions of combustion, leaks, and more. However, there are still many challenges to be overcome. There could be a rock in a frame moving only one pixel in size. Many cameras can be thousands of feet away from the target.
“I know next to nothing about mining and rocks,” says Meyer. So how does he combine his expertise in computer science with the knowledge needed to contextualize the program? This project involves a lot of collaboration and consulting with geotechnical engineers who can identify to Meyer the different motion happening to filter out some of the external noise.
Mining needs computer science to help solve problems in the industry where mining safety can be increased and become more efficient. Computer science is a unique field wherein it can only exist with other fields giving it context, questions, and problems for scientists, programmers, and engineers to solve. For Meyer, this brings many opportunities for a career in Computer Science, and while he may not always stay in the mining industry, he wants to support research that will help people and create a large impact.
The GCE is funded by a variety of memberships from mining companies and grants for directed research such as this project, which is a time limited NIOSH grant-funded project. Meyer wants the project to be as complete and reliable as possible.
“What I’m doing over time is small refinements to how accurately we can detect rockfall,” says Meyer. It’s not often a solo software engineer gets to work on a program of this unique magnitude. Outside of work and school, Meyer enjoys rapid prototyping as a hobby and programming micro controllers.
Meyer says the work at the GCE “opened my eyes to the mining industry that I never considered,” such as the amount of additional mining it will take to get critical minerals like copper and lithium that are needed in a renewable energy future. Meyer has a new appreciation for mining.
Meyer’s advice for students? Don’t give up, he says. Meyer says it took him a short time to regret dropping out of college but a much longer time to be able to return to college. There are so many opportunities at your fingertips as a student, and it may be hard to make a decision between the opportunities.
While Computer Science may be both daunting and an extremely appealing career, Meyer encourages anyone to try their hand at programming through a variety of free tools and websites, especially for those looking to get into the field. “It’s more accessible than you know,” says Meyer.