Dwarf helicopters, smart subs and mining robots to automate Australia

Robot guru says there is an unmanned robot for every labour-intensive and dangerous job in the country

Hugh Durrant-Whyte, research director at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems
<I>Credit: University of Sydney</I>

Hugh Durrant-Whyte, research director at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems Credit: University of Sydney

Meet Hugh F Durrant-Whyte, the man who wants to automate Australia. This master of machines reckons there is an unmanned robot for every labour-intensive and dangerous job in the country.

Durrant-Whyte, research director at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems (CAS), has designed robots for industries including mining, sea exploration and agriculture that can outperform human ability in a variety of specialised skills.

For instance, some farmers are using his unmanned dwarf helicopter to automatically seek and destroy two plant species over a 500km area, eliminating the need to carpet-bomb crops with dangerous pesticides. The farmers may also soon be able to send out unmanned prime movers to sow fields.

The Department of Defence, research scientists and oil barons are using his small submarines to search for untapped oil and gas fields and map the hostile ocean depths off the Far North coast.

Miners in Western Australia’s Pilbara region can leave the canary at home and send in automated drilling machines. And while some may be slightly miffed, his robotic systems are driving those colossal 300-tonne trucks in the West Angelas mine (in Central Western Australia) without human help.

In fact, Durrant-Whyte says the entire Pilbara mining industry will use robots, operated remotely hundred of kilometres away in Perth.

“All mines in the Pilbara will be run from the Regional Operations Centre in Perth, including the process plants, and even trains,” Durrant-Whyte said, adding that mines in areas such as Mongolia and West Africa could be run remotely from cities like Sydney.

“I'd like to see robots in every industry in Australia.” Robots on the mines employ an arsenal of lasers, radars and 3D hyperspectral imaging to help detect minerals and guide machines in dangerous areas.

Similar technology is being used in CAS’ autonomous submarine research. New artificial intelligence for the machines is being developed that will allow the robots to “reason” about information collected by sensors, improving their capabilities for defence missions and exploratory research. The submarines are also in use by ecologists and gas miners to map coral distribution off Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef and Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef.

He said Australia is at the forefront of robotics research and added work by CAS is geared to improving efficiency and safety, rather than reducing workforce.

“It’s about efficiency, information management and precision,” Durrant-Whyte said, adding the work will make the mining industry more like a factory and help to keep people off-site where possible.

“There are a lot of safety considerations… you can’t have an unmanned truck run over and kill someone or a plan fly across the state and crash in Sydney – they all have advanced determination systems.

“Unlike a famous operating system, our software never, never fails.”

He said that any death occasioned from failure of robotic information systems would shake trust in autonomous machines.

Durrant-Whyte, through CAS, is also outfitting robot navigation systems with better real-time laser terrain sensors, radar, and the incorporation of colour and texture into video processing on-board cameras. Another series of projects is being run to assist health care including the development of an intelligent walking aid, an autonomous powered wheelchair, and a cuff-less which detects blood pressure as a cardiovascular system indicator.

Durrant-Whyte was speaking at the Broadband and Beyond conference in Sydney last week.

Tags Ningaloo Reefdepartment of defencerobotsHugh F Durrant-WhyteGreat Barrier ReefPilbaraAustralian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems (CAS)

More about Australian Research CouncilAustralian Research CouncilDepartment of Defence

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