Interview with Jonathon (Jon) Huntington (JH), initially with CSIRO Division of Mineral Physics, currently Chief Research Scientist with Mineral Mapping Technologies Group, CSIRO Division of Exploration and Mining

by Catherine Rayner (CR)

12 April 2002


(This is not a verbatim transcript as many asides, comments and remarks have been left out but essentially the majority is “as spoken” – Paul Wise)



CR: What I'm interested in is your career in remote sensing, how and why you got interested in remote sensing?


JH: I guess my interest started during my degree (London University) in the late 60s in the days before satellites using aerial photography. In a quirk of fate I failed the zoology component of my Geology degree so had to resit it and so took a job for a year (1967) with the British Overseas Geological Survey (in London) and it was my introduction to the power of remote sensing through aerial photography. In finishing my degree I did a mapping project with extensive use of aerial photography, and then when I went on to my PhD I chose a study of fracture trace analysis (analysing fractures in the earth) in a regional perspective and again remote sensing (aerial photography) was the source of that information. That study took place in Wales, Saudi Arabia & South Africa.


The three things that motivate me about remote sensing; one is you get to see a lot of places without having to go there because you are looking at it from above; two, there is a lot of art in remote sensing, some of the images are just stunning visually and look like works of art; three, the possibility of making new and informative geological maps from these data more economically than trudging around the desert on the ground. So I am interested in creating new geological knowledge and remote sensing is a great way of doing that as well as being economic.


Interestingly my father was a metallurgist and great-grandfather an early balloonist who later in 1912 hand-built his own plane. One of the things that would have impressed these early balloonists would have been the ability to look down. I think he would be most impressed that I can now look down at the earth from satellites from space!


When I finished my PhD I was offered a job by the world’s largest nickel mining company, International Nickel, who wanted a remote sensing expert. Another quirk of fate was that instead of being sent to Toronto I was sent to Sydney which was the best move all round.


So I had the incredible good fortune to be in Australia at a time when remote sensing really took off and where it is so relevant. My career would not have gone the same way in England.


Repeating the cliché that we have a huge country with a small population we somehow have to manage that and remote sensing is one of several very obvious tools to manage that. In any discipline, equally geology, to go and overfly an area with an aeroplane or satellite is a very cost effective tool for this country. It is also extremely difficult which has seen Australia remote sensing develop pioneering ways and I think we have taught the rest of the world a few things because we have had to think laterally when our backs were against the wall. Whereas in some parts of the world it has been so easy as they became beguiled by the easiness of it and think everything is just like Arizona, which it isn’t. So I think Australian remote sensing has benefitted by not only having a relevant environment, but also a difficult one.


So in this country we have had some pioneers, Andy Green, Frank Honey and many others (perhaps myself) who have tried to tailor remote sensing to this country which is a bit different. I’ve sometimes said that if it works here it will probably work anywhere whereas the reverse of that statement is not true. It’s to do with the climate, the weathering history of the landscape, its old and planed flat and it makes mapping the geology with remote sensing more difficult, Of course we’ve got some unique vegetation down here e.g. desert vegetation, eucalypts, something that the rest of the world doesn’t have a lot of. So that’s a bit of background about how I got into remote sensing.


CR: Having got into it where did you go after you arrived in Sydney?


JH: I have been fortunate that after I arrived in 1972, I stayed in Sydney. I worked with International Nickel (IN) for 3½ years until they decided to withdraw from Australia and was fortunate enough to bump into Ken McCracken the then Chief of CSIRO’s Division of Mineral Physics. To Ken I owe a huge debt because he said what do you do and I said I work for IN and in three weeks I am going back to England. He said you don’t want to do that, why don’t you write me a research proposal and if I like it we’ll offer you a visiting scientist position. So I made up a project, submitted a proposal and Ken said come and work with us for a year as a scientific visitor. That year became two, then four, until I got put on the permanent payroll and here I am.


I admit that while in industry I looked down on government employment, and swore I was going to work for CSIRO for a year and then return to the mining sector but I said that without knowing how CSIRO operated. In time I learnt that CSIRO was a wonderful institution, it suited my interests entirely and being on the ground floor of satellite remote sensing in this country it allowed me and others to some extent set the agenda. So it was fortuitous to cut some new ground in that at CSIRO we are not academic in the “boffins in the backroom, white coat brigade”, sense we are intensely practical and we have to be as our customer base is the mining sector.


From the time, about when I joined CSIRO, continuously thereafter we have had industry funded projects and I think that’s part of the fun in coming up with something which you then develop you know there is somebody out there who wants to use it and that’s very gratifying. To have somebody want to implement what you have done. The other thing is that CSIRO is quite a free environment where you can put forward ideas and also had the remote sensing community whereby if you had a problem you could pick up the phone and ask somebody for advice. The remote sensing community in Australia is not a very big one, everyone knows everybody else. This industry linkage is what Ken, Andy & I were given the Australia Prize for in 1995. Not only because we put a lot of effort into being innovative but because we tried to get it out into the community where it could be used. I think it was that connection with AMIRA as they were an important vehicle for us in connecting with the mining sector (not only AMIRA as the organisation but also AMIRA as the broker for the mining companies).


In my career I have probably been involved with some $6 million of industry supported R&D and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s getting harder but I have an AMIRA project at the moment supported by nine companies.


CR: During your career what incidents or big changes stick in your mind?


JH: I think there were some milestones and not in any order. The upgrade of the Australian Landsat Station (ALS) to receive Landsat TM, which was pioneered by Andy Green and Guy Roberts, I think was a significant step. After years of trying to persuade the government to upgrade Alice Springs and being refused, Andy & Ken put together a ”club” of companies to raise approaching $1m to do it ourselves (CSIRO) and it was very innovative. It was done several years before the government finally agreed to fund a full upgrade and which finally cost some $10-11m.


The Geoscan scanner which has not gone on, especially the Mk II. Frank Honey left CSIRO and went to Carboyd Minerals run by an innovative man, Galbraith. Frank when he left had the idea for an airborne multispectral scanner of which the MK I and subsequently MK II versions were funded by Galbraith. At the time that was quite innovative and Frank also built an image processing system to analyse the results. Sadly when Carboyd was bought by Ashton Mining the new owners also owned Geoscan but did not know what to do with it. Bob Agar took over from Frank but within a couple of years Ashton Mining decided they weren’t interested in remote sensing and tried to sell it. They let Bob try to make it operational but gave him no operating or marketing budget thus dooming it to failure and it did not survive commercially.


What replaced it was also exciting. Terry Cox’s series of Hymap scanners. He has two companies, Integrated Spectronics Pty Ltd builds arguably the world’s best commercial airborne hyper-spectral remote sensing instrument, outside of NASA, we think there is none better. They are built here in Australia, half by CSIRO Material Science in Victoria and half by Terry. The optics are very clever and developed by a guy called Ian Wilson. That group although operating out of CSIRO buildings is now a private company which in itself is an interesting development for CSIRO to let a R&D group go because it was perceived that they were doing manufacturing not R&D. Taking eight people out of CSIRO and forming an SME could be considered risky. Four, instruments with one underway, have been built and Terry is known worldwide for these instruments. His other company is Hyvista which is a service provider flying one of his scanners on contract.


From a personal view, post Geoscan but before Terry started building the Hymaps, we were concerned as to how to deliver remote sensing, other than by satellite, to customers at a price they could afford. I got to thinking about the commercial issues. You can have the best R&D but if you can’t get it into the community at a price they can afford then it goes nowhere and I like to get people using what I develop. So if money is an impediment then you had better do something about bringing the cost down. In the mid-80s we got to thinking about what were the drivers and it was the cost of both the instruments and the data. We came up with an alternative mechanism of collecting remotely sensed data from aircraft. The major cost was seen as being the fixed cost of the aircraft and survey. However, especially on the mining industry, there are already aircraft gathering data whereby that fixed cost is already covered so let’s build an instrument to go on these existing platforms. It turned out that these aircraft carried geophysical instruments to collect data like magnetics, radiometrics, electromagnetics and things like that. So if you stick in another instrument the cost of the aircraft/survey is spread over multiple datasets. The problem was however that these instruments collect, from very low altitude 50-150m, not images but electromagnetic profiles from directly under the aircraft, not the usual place for remote sensing instruments. But we followed up on this concept with an instrument called a “profiler”  which essentially created an image one pixel wide and as long as you wanted to go on flying. The flight lines were 100-400m and then you grid and resample it to make an image as they do with magnetics and radiometrics. So we developed the first airborne profiler to do airborne mineralogy derived from a spectrometer with several hundred bands as against Landsat’s 6 bands, to do spectroscopy at very low altitude.


It is basically very difficult to do imaging at those low altitudes as you are too close to the ground, so you do profiling. So we built an instrument, the first being Aerospec which Terry Cox designed before he left CSIRO, then there came GIMMS (Geophysically Integrated Mineral Mapping Spectrometer). We finished with OARS (Operational Airborne Research Spectrometer) built in conjunction with World Geoscience Corporation (WGC), using a government grant ($1.8m) for funding. There were two built, both fly together with one looking up for calibration and the other down for data collection. WGC was later taken over by Fugro, the world’s largest geophysical company headquartered in the Netherlands. We have the rights to the technology and they can work with it and subsequently built two other instruments for them as a derivative of that concept and that is a package called LARGOS which is marketed worldwide.


In 1980, at the end of the first AMIRA project that Andy Green and I did, which was looking at Landsat MSS data we concluded that it had some weaknesses. While it had given the world a new perspective from a geological viewpoint it had huge limitations. Most of the interesting information for geology, as opposed to vegetation, is way out in the infra-red (IR) and MSS didn’t have that capability and TM was non-existent then. In a study I did overseas based on “if you could build a remote sensing system for geologists what would it be?” I declared on my return, it wasn’t Landsat MSS and not even TM, which NASA was beginning to think about, it was spectroscopy. Geologists needed not pictures as per Landsat but compositional information of what was on the ground. Not that it was a red rock or grey rock but that it comprised of x, y, z minerals; and that was spectroscopy. However, spectrometers were big things that only existed in chemical laboratories and took up half the room.  


At the time there was work going on overseas with field spectrometers and I said to Ken McCracken that what we ought to be developing for our industry is spectroscopy. Bill Collins in the US was the only one doing it and that’s what Australian geologists need but Ken was unsure initially. The next AMIRA project tested that idea by demonstrating in 1982 for the first time in Australia and only the second time in the world that mineral species could be recognised from the air as opposed to making a colour picture. Bill Collin’s spectrometer was bought to Australia for this purpose so not only was he a pioneer but so was this work. Since then I guess the remote sensing world has operated on two planes one group of people using broadband images like MSS & TM, SPOT, ASTER & Geoscan and the other group using what is now known as imaging spectroscopy or hyper-spectral imaging where you’re using several hundred spectral bands. So you are not interested in a picture of the landscape but it is the spectrum you get back from every pixel that essentially describes the molecular composition of what’s inside that pixel. That to me was a major, radical change in Australian remote sensing when we moved from broadband to narrow-band imaging spectroscopy. For that last ten years that has been the focus for me and my research group.


CR: There has been a large number of people talked about, who have been those that have had the most effect on remote sensing in Australia?


JH: Frank Honey, Andy Green, Ken McCracken, David Jupp & John O’Callaghan and myself. A subset of these people were pioneers of image processing in this country. Andy Green & Guy Roberts built an image processing system as did Frank Honey as did John O’Callaghan as did David Jupp, all in parallel and duplicate. Terry Cox deserves to be in there with Dean Graetz despite the fact that the list tends to be CSIRO-centric it’s what characterised the early days. BMR and Mike Aubrey on the commercial side. Mike’s been doing this commercially for a long time, with Gale Morton in the early days who was another with huge remote sensing passion. Another name in the commercial world is Kerry O’Sullivan, who was Mr Remote Sensing for the then CRA operations, Rio Tinto. He was one of the major users, passionate and articulate in promulgating the word and now is with AMIRA. Another of significance in the commercial world is Mike Hussey who has remained Mr Remote Sensing all along for De Biers Australia (diamonds are a girl’s best friend and all that) and he had a great deal to do with the first Hymap scanner as the first Hymap scanner built under contract by Terry Cox and Ian Wilson, CSIRO was for De Beirs and Anglo America. Built in great secrecy some years back that instrument is now operated exclusively by Mike Hussey for De Biers.


Unfortunately AMIRA at the end of last year went into receivership but for the last 25 years they gave industry training courses on anything to do with the mining sector but every year in the 70s there was a remote sensing course. The pioneers of that course were Colin Simpson & John Perry, myself and somebody else but in that very first 1972/73 class was Kerry O’Sullivan, Mike Hussey & Rob Patterson from Aberfoyle (the company), so it was a seminal year. Thus AMIRA closing its doors is very sad. AMIRA deserves mention because it was the vehicle for a great deal of training.


Guy Roberts, who I mentioned earlier, was a very talented electronics engineer, who was recruited by Andy Green, and he built three image processing systems; the last was the gear for the TM upgrade (Signal Processing Experiment) almost single handed from the chip upwards. Definitely a pioneer of image processing in this country because his systems rather than being off-the-shelf it were tailored to our needs.


The book “Satellite Images of Australia” by Christine Astley-Boden & Ken McCracken deserves mention.


One of the things that Mike Aubrey might have mentioned is that you can’t ignore the role that government policy has played. It’s likely that the remote sensing community feels that the government has totally missed the point. The Australian Space Board and its predecessors had its working groups and committees but overall totally missed the point. Remote sensing is sometimes seen for exactly what it is looking at earth but often it comes under the banner of “SPACE”. That word conjures up grandiose analogies of Space Programs and NASA and spacecraft and expensive programs which people say Australia can’t afford in its infrastructure. Unfortunately remote sensing has not been sure of whether to stand alone or be something to do with space.


One last thing that has just come to mind is that in the 80s Lou Whitburn (hired by Andy Green) built the first airborne laser remote sensing spectrometer called MIRACLS (Mid-Infra-Red Airborne CO2 Laser Spectrometer). It was a huge instrument which flew in a Fokker Friendship and cost some $2.5m. It is currently mothballed as now we have gone on to build little versions of it but it was a world first.