Over the past decade, I have worked on projects in the Pacific, Indonesia and on remote mining infrastructure and villages, remote and independent resorts, and for the remotest communities in central Australia.
Too often, specifying and selecting appropriate technology has been a hit-and-miss affair. In one instance, air-conditioning units were quickly destroyed in tropical Queensland by small geckos nesting in the heat exchanger, insects which blocked air intakes, frogs and toads which blocked drainage, swarms of grasshoppers and flies which eventually covered a vehicle's radiator and overheat engines. Working in dust storms and with mosquito and sandfly infestations, mice which eat electrical cables, and snakes which frequent stored building materials, and providing remote facilities has many challenges.
When one also considers that much of Australia had a record breaking summer with temperatures often two to five degrees Celsius higher than the average, problems are compounded. At temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, much of the equipment required for building and construction begins to malfunction or is just "too hot to handle." Refrigeration begins to stop operating and there is no respite from these extreme conditions.
Is it time equipment and materials were subject to a testing regime for these extreme conditions?
Australia has world class knowledge in providing infrastructure and planning for services to independent remote communities. That expertise has come from the necessity to work with remote and extremely remote communities, remote agriculture and horticulture, aquaculture, mining facilities, military installations, refugee and detention centres which have similar requirements.
What would a working definition of "remote" be in terms of the construction and design industries?
The Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA), uses a geographical information system (GIS) to define road distance to service centres to produce a sliding scale of remoteness. ARIA includes five categories: highly accessible, accessible, moderately accessible, remote, and very remote.
Because of the geographical size of Australia, much of our nation can correctly be described as remote or very remote.
Building in remote areas creates many challenges, including the lack of skilled labour, the logistics of bringing materials to the site, extreme weather, heat and lack of logistical support and facilities.
Whether it is a military installation, a cattle station, remote community or a mining village, remoteness requires a similar strategy, and the response can be compared to those required for independent infrastructure in response to natural disasters and humanitarian disasters, where infrastructure is absent or has been severely damaged.
Remote communities require independent infrastructure, power, potable water, sewerage treatment, communications, emergency medical facilities, food storage, food preparation facilities, climate modification, accommodation and security. Essentially, it requires building a "micro" city.
In the case of a humanitarian responses after disaster and war, people's lives depend on providing basic infrastructure as quickly as possible. Without proper sanitation and sewerage treatment, vermin, insects and flies will quickly spread disease. Without shelter and climate control in extreme conditions, people are more susceptible to temperature stress. Access to power and logistics is required to supply and store food and consumables, and to provide medical services. Access to reliable communications in remote areas is perhaps the first requirement in any emergency response, to organise an appropriate response. Long delays in responding to a crisis have a direct bearing on the survivability of those affected by the disaster.
Unfortunately, temporary responses have a tendency to become permanent. The end result is mining villages which remain decades after their original design life, refugee centres which remain in service far longer than envisioned, temporary services to remote communities which were not designed as permanent infrastructure.
The design of remote infrastructure may begin with these characteristics:
- Equipment should be robust and capable of operating in extreme conditions including dust, extreme heat or cold, snow and ice, smoke and fire, have vermin proofing from rodents, insects and especially flies, mites and mosquitoes.
- Must be easily deployed and relocated, often on heavy and on off road vehicles.
- Must be lightweight and often modular.
- Should not require high levels of skill to deploy.
- Modules should be interchangeable so that if one module fails or is destroyed, backup modules can quickly be brought on line.
- Communications that can be established remotely to provide an inviolate connection to HQ can be critical.
- Water treatment and generation which can quickly produce a large volume of clean and safe drinking water, water for cleaning and for sewerage requirements is a must.
- Sewerage treatment which safely treats effluent to a high level without creating health or environmental damage is also necessary.
- Must provide emergency medical treatment and facilities of a sophisticated nature.
- Must provide a high level of security to occupants of the remote community.
Equipment is often tested in the extreme conditions of a crisis or military deployment.
A remote village or community, military base is a "Micro" city where all the basic requirements for sustainability are considered and where the infrastructure should be operated independently of other communities; an entirely independent facility. After a disaster or war, power grids are likely to be damaged, as is all the normal infrastructure.
Australia has been at the forefront of creating viable alternatives to these challenges. With Australia having to overcome the challenges of remoteness. Solutions include providing readily deployable solar power, deployable water treatment plants, deployable sewerage treatment plants which can operate in extreme conditions of heat and cold, and remote communications equipment which can readily be deployed to create inviolate connections with the internet and phones.
Our country has developed expertise in emergency response, remote military villages, remote mining infrastructure, refugee facilities, detention facilities and remote communities which provide valuable lessons in the logistics and planning of independent remote communities.
We have developed excellent technical capacity in providing the planning and logistics for independent and remote villages. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Australia has many remote communities, many of which have been required to operate independently during prolonged floods, cyclones and storms, bush fires and after tsunami in the Pacific, in response to humanitarian disasters and wars, and due to the remoteness of many mining operations.
When one considers the frequency with which Australia and our remote communities have required viable responses to independent operation of infrastructure and facilities, it is time that equipment and systems and professional services be certified and tested for their appropriateness to operate remotely and independently.
Australia has a competitive advantage in terms of technical proficiency in creating appropriate responses to these challenges. Equipment, infrastructure and services have not been evaluated consistently by any independent organization.
Is it time Australia implemented a system to pre-qualify equipment and services for their appropriateness for remote working? Could such certification improve reliability and provide Australian service and equipment providers with a competitive advantage. "Equipment meets Australian Standard for Independent and Remote Operation," IRO score six out of 10?
Considering climate change and geopolitical circumstances are likely to create a higher frequency of humanitarian and natural disasters affecting remote communities, and the fact many of our remote communities and mining infrastructure face similar challenges, is it time for research institutions and government to place a higher priority on validating and testing responses to working remotely, and also to make regional and remote communities have a base level of infrastructure independence?
Should equipment used in emergency responses be independently evaluated and modified or improved wherever deficiencies are identified? Do we need a testing and verification regime for the most challenging conditions, and a design framework which allow for ready deployment? Could Australian verification provide a competitive advantage to Australian manufacturer's and suppliers, and a benchmark for use in remote and emergency conditions?