Are these the most surprising facilities at UTS?
There’s more to UTS than many people know – including a raft of spaces hidden underground or tucked away in secret locations. We’ve tracked down some of the more unusual ones to find out what they’re all about.
What is AFTER? It’s the acronym for the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research – a unique body donation facility dedicated to the study of forensic taphonomy in Australia and, in fact, the only one in the Southern Hemisphere or this part of the world!
So, what is forensic taphonomy? Forensic taphonomy is the study of human remains from the time of death to the time of discovery, and aims to solve questions surrounding the physical, chemical and biological processes of human decomposition. Got your attention now!
Where is it, you ask? Well, we can’t tell you the precise location, for obvious reasons, although we can say that it’s set in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.
As the only facility to study human decomposition outside of the United States, AFTER enables scientists to study body decomposition in the context of Australia’s distinct climate, ecology and geology.
It opened in 2016 as a collaboration between forensic scientists from UTS, the police and other institutions and agencies involved in death investigations – such as homicide cases, war crimes and mass disaster – as well as missing person cases.
Off the beaten track and behind a high-security, razor-wire fence, the wooded terrain is the kind of landscape where you’d imagine someone disposing of a corpse, which makes it ideal for the kind of work that goes on here. Human remains are buried, some in shallow individual graves and others in deeper mass graves, each marked by tape, set out over the five-hectare site.
One section – constructed using rubble from UTS building sites – is set out for the kind of fatalities that result from collapsed buildings, whether caused by poor construction, natural disasters or bombings.
Another setting hosts a donated car, one of several vehicles AFTER will use to understand how bodies decompose in a ‘hothouse’ environment. AFTER also captures the odours of decay to train cadaver dogs, enables researchers to examine the breakdown of clothes worn by corpses, and conducts experiments on evidence found in and around the burial sites, such as footprints and bullet-markings.
In case you’re wondering, all remains are voluntarily donated – and, yes, you can apply to donate your body to science.
Library Retrieval System
When you’re relaxing on the Alumni Green grass, enjoying the UTS life buzzing around you, do you ever give a thought for the robots working madly a few metres below ground? Perhaps you didn’t even know UTS had subterranean robots!
Strictly speaking, they are robotic cranes or arms on rails, one servicing each of the six aisles in our underground Library Retrieval System (LRS). The LRS currently holds, in galvanised steel bins, more than half a million lesser-used items – almost 70% of the UTS Library’s collection – which have been relocated progressively from the UTS Library (and the library at UTS’s now-closed Kuring-gai campus) since the LRS opened in 2014.
Each book is fitted with a radio frequency tag, and when a student or staff member makes an online request for it, one of the 15m cranes springs into action, retrieving the order from the five-storey storage facility. As many as 70 requests may be placed on a busy day during session. If the order happens to coincide with a scheduled delivery, it can take as little as 10 minutes for the item to make its way to the person requesting it – and rarely more than two hours. Come the relocation of the UTS Library to UTS Central following the completion of construction in 2019, retrieval times could be even faster, given the proximity of the two facilities.
With fewer books on shelves, what is all that freed-up space in the current Library used for? Since the LRS opened, many spaces have been creatively reinvented as interactive student zones, such as the Games Room and group study spaces. So, if you regularly enjoy any of these, you probably have the LRS’s underground robots to thank.
If you still don’t believe UTS has robots, take a look down one of the two oculi (circular viewing lenses) on Alumni Green, which provide a bird’s eye view onto the action below. You might just be lucky and see a long robotic arm reaching out to retrieve that book you ordered.
Security Emergency Control Centre
The UTS Tower is on fire (this is a supposition not a fact, so don’t panic) and on every floor, the alarm has sounded, fire trucks are on-scene and orderly evacuations are underway. Those lucky enough to be on the Tower’s lower levels are already pouring from emergency exits on their way to the assembly point on the corner of Thomas and Jones streets.
Not quite everyone, though. A few people are making for a little-known bunker close by, known as the Security Emergency Control Centre (SECC). In times of crisis, it’s here that a team of 12 senior executives – under the leadership of Deputy Vice-Chancellors Patrick Woods and Anne Dwyer – gathers to manage UTS’s response to the emergency and set in motion the university’s recovery.
One wall in the SECC is dominated by a bank of screens, connected to the UTS computer system as well as commercial news channels, allowing the team to stay in touch with the outside world. They can also receive a feed from any of the CCTV cameras around campus. Just as important are the pre-prepared folders, one for each executive. These contain vital checklists that assist them in managing the essentials – everything from media relations to staff and student welfare, issues around the evacuation, and finding alternative learning and workspaces. Wall maps provide at-a-glance reference to the campus and city, while computers and a whiteboard record notes and action points.
Real emergencies are rare; in fact, since the SECC opened less than two years ago, it has fortunately not been called on to handle a live situation. Nevertheless, the full team undergoes annual training in the space to ensure they are familiar with the protocols and ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Security also runs separate sessions on specific situations such as ‘high impact, low probability‘ events in the SECC, because while they always hope for the best, it’s essential to prepare for the unexpected.
Short of an IMAX movie, there’s nothing quite like the Data Arena, tucked away inside the entrance to UTS’s Engineering and IT Building.
If you haven’t experienced it for yourself, imagine standing in the dark centre of a vast cylindrical screen four metres high and ten metres in diameter while six stereo video projectors create a seamless 27-million-pixel, 3D panorama around you. The effect is so immersive that the Data Arena’s reason for being is almost beside the point. Almost but not quite.
In fact, there is a very important reason for all this high-tech wizardry, summed up in two words: big data.
The challenge facing governments, business and research projects alike is identifying patterns and trends among the mammoth data sets computerisation has made possible. The Data Arena has responded to this challenge by harnessing open-source software, high-performance parallel computing and the kind of visual effects techniques more commonly found in movies to simplify and visualise big data, and project it onto a screen.
Data is commonly represented in just two dimensions, such as a bar chart, line graph or pie chart printed on the page. The Data Arena, however, goes beyond plain-old spreadsheet graphics, with data modelled and animated in three dimensions. Rather than a graph, data labels can be applied to video images or 3D models of the objects under study.
Because the human brain is generally much more adept at deciphering pictures than numbers, the Data Arena makes it easier to identify patterns, associations and anomalies, leading to improved insights and potentially significant breakthroughs and discoveries. Whether the task is analysing the chemical composition of the stars, the likelihood of stock market panic or the movement of bacteria, if it involves big data, then it could be a job for the Data Arena.
If that all sounds far too techie, just imagine a completely immersive sound-and-vision experience, and you’ll get the picture of this amazing space.
Know about any other extraordinary facilities at UTS? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.