Virtual Archaeology: Bringing History Alive with Supercomputing

Magnus supercomputer

The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre currently houses “Magnus,” a Cray® XC40™ performance computer that is the most powerful research supercomputer in the southern hemisphere. Magnus supports more than 800 Australian researchers to produce significant and fascinating research results. Located in Perth, Western Australia, the centre is staffed by more than 40 talented individuals who help those researchers realize the full potential of Magnus.

Every so often, a project is proposed which at first glance doesn’t quite fit Magnus’ usual purpose as an engine for science. One such project is the Sydney-Kormoran Project, being conducted by Andrew Woods, Joshua Hollick and Andrew Hutchison from Curtin University. In 1941, during World War II, the pride of the Australian fleet, the HMAS Sydney (II), encountered the German raider HSK Kormoran off the coast of Western Australia. After a short but fierce battle, both ships sank with the loss of all 645 crew from the Sydney and 82 from the Kormoran. The final resting place was a mystery until 2008, when the wrecks of both ships were located 200 km off the coast of Western Australia.

Given that both ships are located 2.5 kilometres beneath the ocean’s surface, they are out of the reach of most people. So how do you go about providing the general population access to one of the most historically significant events in Australia’s wartime history? You utilize a supercomputer and experience virtual archaeology.

Two underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) were sent down to the wreck site fitted with 14 digital still cameras and four high-definition 3D video cameras. They captured hundreds of thousands of photographs from all angles, illuminated by 3kW of LED lights on each ROV. The resulting problem was how to process the vast amount of data that had been captured to produce detailed digital 3D models. The answer is Pawsey’s Magnus, which can perform feature comparisons between photographs in a matter of days, something that would take a regular computer years to complete.

I had the privilege of witnessing some of the early three-dimensional renderings that have been performed using only a small fraction of the data available. There is a large wrap-around viewing screen at the Curtin HIVE where people (with the help of 3D glasses) can experience the wreck site in a way that would have been previously impossible. Although the events of the attack were tragic, there is a strange beauty to the images of the wrecks, which are gradually being reclaimed by nature. The idea that “virtual archaeology” can be performed on Magnus and provide an engaging experience to the general public is very exciting.

This type of project demonstrates that at its heart, Magnus is a machine that creates possibilities — and we have only just scratched the surface of what it is capable of. Although Magnus is a fantastic piece of hardware, the research outputs that are being produced thanks to Magnus are even more awe inspiring. And given that Magnus is being used for work of such cultural significance, the sky is the limit.

For more information

DOF Subsea ROV inspecting Kormoran engine room - WAM+Curtin HMAS Sydney bridge hole - WAM+Curtin HMAS Sydney damaged B turret - WAM+Curtin HMAS Sydney multibeam sonar survey - WAM+Curtin HMAS Sydney portside shell hole - WAM+Curtin HMAS Sydney stern with ROV - WAM+Curtin Kormoran anemone garden - WAM+Curtin Kormoran unarmed mine - WAM+Curtin SKP - HMAS Sydney II ships boats 3D reconstruction 2015 SKP HACS 3D Reconstruction Sydney carley float - WAM+Curtin Sydney torn-off bow -WAM+Curtin

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