Robotics guru automates cat herding for NICTA

Incoming CEO looks to promote internal, industry collaboration for ICT researchers

NICTA's new chief executive, Hugh Durrant-Whyte.

NICTA's new chief executive, Hugh Durrant-Whyte.

The next chief executive for government-funded innovation body, National ICT Australia (NICTA), has big plans when he assumes the role later this year.

Hugh Durrant-Whyte, a robotics expert who currently heads up 250 researchers at the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, will replace NICTA CEO, David Skellern - who will retire after five years in the role - on 13 December. In June, Durrant-Whyte was awarded Fellow of the British Royal Society and last month became NSW Scientist of the Year.

Though not a veteran of ‘hard ICT’, Durrant-Whyte told Computerworld Australia his experience in implementing and commercialising robotics automation in the mining, maritime and defence sectors made him right for the job.

“I’m a successful scientist but the group here in the last decade founded five startup companies,” he said. “80 per cent of the funding for the group I currently run comes from industry and 30 per cent of that comes from overseas. And they don’t just do it because they want to be nice to us, they do it because they want to get something out of it. And a lot of that collaboration has been really deep, long term engagements where we understand our business partner and we’re a central part of his business strategy.”

Durrant-Whyte expected the same to happen under his leadership at NICTA, with a focus on leveraging ICT for Australian-specific applications in the areas of agriculture, mining and coastal management.

“All of these are huge IT applications in which probably Australia is one of the largest, most important areas in the world,” he said.

“I think it’s very timely that to some degree it lines up with the NBN (National Broadband Network) because of all of these, especially mining, these are very remote mines in areas like the Pilborough and we actually want to be able to operate them from Perth.

"So that’s communication infrastructure, developing applications like these IT critical applications which really make best use of those resources in terms of efficiency, sustainbility and so on are probably good applications for a centre like NICTA to look at in future. It will make a big difference not just economically but also to the whole way Australia operates.”

However, the robotics engineer expects encouraging collaboration among researchers both internally and with industry would be like “herding cats”.

“To make people collaborate you have to make it worth their while," he said. "I say, to herd cats you need a big fish.”

Those incentives would likely come from cultural awareness of the change and the contribution NICTA researchers make to industries through innovation, both with wider applications and through greater collaboration with industry. Durrant-Whyte would also be looking to use his role at the organisation to impart excitement to the researchers as a motivation.

The ICT centre of excellence was earmarked for $33 million in funding from the Victorian Government earlier this week for the creation of 160 new jobs - a move Durrant-Whyte welcome - and also highlighted as a point of collaboration with IBM and the University of Melbourne in a newly founded global research and development lab to commence next year. The smart disaster and resource management identified as key priorities for the new lab tie directly into the research motions Durrant-Whyte believes must push NICTA forward.

However, he believed NICTA - rather than vendors - should be promoting Australia as a source of innovation and location for investment.

“A company will go to the best place in the world, not just it’s local neighbourhood so we have to compete on that basis,” he said. “Which means, really, having that excellence in research which means we can engage with large international companies and attract them to fund and invest in research and development in Australia. Equally you’ve got to put runs on the board, you’ve got to ultimately be able to deliver that and show that stuff actually works and actually makes a difference.

“I think NICTA should be playing a pivotal role in really enabling the research to be undertaken such that all these applications and so on can be developed. But also it’s got the secondary role of world creation, whether that’s through assisting existing companies to do things like port or mining automation, all the way through to generating startup companies. If a guy has got a good idea and really wants to go for it and it makes commercial sense, NICTA should be there supporting these people to move on and do that and create wealth.”

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