Our 2021 Year in Review highlights

By December 23rd, 2021

It’s been an extraordinary year. Uncertainties and challenges have remained, but so too has perseverance, innovation, and successes. We’re proud of the science excellence, adaptive transformation and future building that CSIRO’s Data61 has achieved this year.

Below, you’ll find some of the highlights of our year, including our role in driving Australia’s AI opportunity, ensuring COVID-19 data is utilised while staying private and secure, welcoming talented new starters from across the globe, and a little thing called the DARPA Subterranean Challenge…

We would also like to thank you for your ongoing support, and wish you a safe and merry festive season, and a very Happy New Year! To stay in touch with us over the holiday period, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, and don’t forget to subscribe to Algorithm if you’d like to hear more from us in the New Year.

Science excellence

CSIRO members of team CSIRO's Data61 at Pullenvale, Queensland.

CSIRO members of team CSIRO’s Data61 at Pullenvale, Queensland.

Australia claims historic top two spot in international robotics challenge

In September, robotics experts led by CSIRO’s Data61 beat teams from NASA JPL, MIT, California Institute of Technology, and Carnegie Mellon University to claim second place in DARPA’s world leading robotics competition, the Subterranean Challenge.

Made up of members from CSIRO’s Data61, CSIRO spin-out robotics company Emesent and the Georgia Institute of Technology, the team competed under the name ‘CSIRO’s Data61’ and won the preliminary round before being awarded second in the final circuit

Organised by the US Government research agency and spanning a three-year-period, the Subterranean Challenge was designed to push the boundaries of autonomous robotic technology.

Scientists were tasked with remotely running the robots in an underground environment that simulated a real-world scenario. This included locating models representing lost or injured humans, backpacks, or phones, as well as variable conditions such as pockets of gas.

Points were awarded for correct identification and location of items, mapping the terrain, and maintaining autonomy and communications throughout.

“This cements CSIRO’s place as a world leader in robotics and puts Australia firmly on the map in this increasingly important area of science,” said team leader Dr Navinda Kottege.

The $US1 million ($AUD1.3) prize money will be reinvested into team CSIRO’s Data61’s research and development of Australian technology.

Read more here.

Ensuring anonymous COVID-19 data stays secure and private

Announced in January, data privacy tool PIF (Personal Information Factor) ensured key datasets – such as those tracking COVID-19 – could be publicly shared with an extra layer of security for sensitive personal information.

Developed as a collaboration between CSIRO’s Data61, the NSW Government, the Australian Computer Society (ACS) and several other groups, the privacy tool assesses the risks to an individual’s data within any dataset; allowing targeted and effective protection mechanisms to be put in place.

An early version of the tool was being used by the NSW Government to analyse datasets tracking the spread of COVID-19 in the state since March 2020, applying appropriate levels of protection before this data is released as open data.

“Every day, it (PIF) helps us analyse the security and privacy risks of releasing de-identified datasets of people infected with COVID-19 in NSW and the testing cases for COVID-19, allowing us to minimise the re-identification risk before releasing to the public,” said NSW Government’s Chief Data Scientist Dr Ian Oppermann.

Read more here.

PIF COVID-19 NSW data privacy

AI-powered spinal segmentation technology could ‘save radiologists and surgeons thousands of hours of work’

Released in March, an AI-powered piece of software that segments spinal vertebrae in two minutes with an accuracy rate of 95% will enable medical professionals to better plan their surgeries and design custom implants.

Designed by CSIRO’s Data61 in collaboration with Australian Medical Imaging Company Singular Health, this automated segmentation and labelling technology is intended to be used in tandem with Singular Health’s MedVR & 3DicomViewer software to visualise and manipulate the spine and individual vertebrae in 3D.

Previous segmentation methods required thousands of hours of manual identification and mark ups to computerised tomography (CT) scans, of which there can be hundreds.

“Manual segmentation is a hugely labour-intensive process, however, by automating it using AI, users will not only save time and energy, but ensure a high degree of segmentation and localisation accuracy,” explains Data61 research lead, Dr Dadong Wang.

Read more here.

Spinal segmentation CSIRO's Data61

An example of spinal segmentation software.


Josef Pieprzyk
Professor Josef Pieprzyk standing on the lookout at Byron Bay's lighthouse.

Professor Josef Pieprzyk

Professor Josef Pieprzyk awarded IACR Fellowship

Professor Josef Pieprzyk of CSIRO’s Data61 added International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) Fellow to his list of outstanding achievements in the field of data security in August this year.

The first Australian in five years to receive an IACR followship, Josef has been a pioneer in the international cryptologic scene since the early 1990s. He counts the creation of the LOKI encryption algorithm, development of the HAVAL hashing algorithm, and research into multiparty computation with Professor Yvo Desmedt and Professor Andrew Yao as some of his achievements.

However, his role in the education of 40 completed PhD students is his brightest career highlight. Here Josef looks back on his career milestones, most impactful research, and proudest moments, and shares some insights into his next big breakthrough.

Dr Monica Wen Chen wins a Women in AI Award (Australia and New Zealand)

AI research scientist Dr Monica Wen Chen was one of the first Australians to win a Women in AI Award at the inaugural event in March this year. A member of Data61’s Analytics and Decision Sciences Program, Dr Chen’s work in finance attracted the judge’s recognition.

“The projects revolve around applying AI-powered tools based on statistical models and machine learning algorithms.

I used this method to simulate future economic scenarios for superannuation and pension analysis based on historical financial and economic data and to identify optimal retirement solutions that people can understand and use to better manage their financial retirement outcomes.”

Dr Monica Wen Chen of CSIRO's Data61

Dr Monica Wen Chen accepting her Women in AI: Finance award

Learn more about Dr Chen career path and what she’s currently working on here.

Coastal hazard assessment tool wins national environment and sustainability award

The Port Phillip Coast Hazard Assessment project, conducted by CSIRO’s Data61 in collaboration with the Victorian Department of Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), received the Environment and Sustainability award at both the Victorian and National APSEA Industry Awards, held separately in March this year.

The project is an assessment of the environmental effects of climate change along the Port Phillip Bay coastline, including inundation, coastal erosion, and groundwater, modelled under several different climate change scenarios.

The project has generated crucial information that can be used to plan for and manage current and future natural, cultural and economic assets, in an area that is home to more than 1.3 million Victorians, and will also be used to set state, regional and council priorities.

Read more here.

Port Phillip Bay Coastal Hazard Assessment

DELWP Forest Fire & Regions team and CSIRO’s Data61 team including Tamara van Polanen Petel, Dr Darren James, Dr Mahesh Prakash and Dr Raymond Cohen.

Team building

Prof Sally Cripps

Prof Sally Cripps, Research Director of CSIRO’s Data61’s Analytics and Decision Sciences program.

Professor Sally Cripps

Joining Data61 in August, Professor Sally Cripps heralds the dawn of a ‘new era’ for data science, moving beyond prediction to demonstrating causality.

Attracted to CSIRO’s impact and challenge focus, Professor Cripps is passionate about moving beyond data science version 1, which was largely about big data and prediction, to more nuanced ways of applying AI and machine learning to understand causal inference.

Here, the newly appointed Research Director of our Analytics and Decision Sciences program talks about what attracted her to Data61, the projects she’s most proud of, and what she’s currently working on.

Professor Jesper Kjeldskov

Joining Data61 in August from Department of Computer Science at Aalborg University in Denmark, Professor Jesper Kjeldskov now calls Brisbane home as the Research Director of the Cyber Physical Systems program.

Jesper has a PhD in Computer Science and Engineering from Aalborg University and a long association with Australia – he has previously worked as a Principal Research Scientist and Research Group Leader at CSIRO and before that Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Jesper’s research interests include human-computer interaction for mobile and ubiquitous technologies, distributed collaboration, sound zone systems, and the application of these in pursuit of improved sustainability in work as well as non-work settings.

Connect with Prof Kjeldskov here.

Dr Fawad Nazir

Dr Fawad Nazir, Research Director of Engineering and Design at CSIRO’s Data61.

Dr Fawad Nazir

Data61 welcomed Dr Fawad Nazir in May, with the former Telstra Director of Product, Engineering and Design taking on the position of Research Director of Engineering and Design at CSIRO’s Data61.

Earlier in his career, while working at CERN in Switzerland, Dr Nazir published and patented work on discovering the topology of large and complex networks within seconds, worked on analysing and visualising large datasets coming from the world’s largest linear particle accelerators at Stanford University in the US, and wrote algorithms to execute algorithmic trading arbitrage opportunity in nano-seconds.

Here Dr Nazir ask about his plans for the for the role, the research capabilities he wants to explore, how the program can help Australia through this period of change, and more.


Spark used to nation-wide to model and predict bushfires

Australia developed a nationally consistent bushfire modelling and prediction capability under an agreement announced in February between CSIRO’s Data61 and AFAC, the National Council for Fire and Emergency Services.

The partnership involves the development of Spark Operational, a cutting-edge bushfire simulation tool based on Data61’s Spark fire prediction platform. Fire and emergency service agencies across the nation will now apply state-of-the-art simulation science to produce predictions, statistics and visualisations of bushfire spread, as well as simulating hours of fire spread across a landscape in a matter of seconds.

“Spark Operational will play a significant role in allowing our emergency response teams to effectively plan for and respond to fire emergencies in a variety of landscapes and climates,” explained AFAC CEO Stuart Ellis.

“It was identified as the best solution to use to help achieve a nationally consistent system that will take the nation to the next generation of firefighting intelligence, and ensure we are protecting as many lives and assets as possible across multiple scenarios, mitigating the dangers of bushfire.”

Read more here.

Australian Droid and Robot joins the Early Adopters Program

In March, laser, scanning and navigation robotic technology company Australian Droid and Robot (ADR) were the latest of six partners to join the Early Adopters Program, applying CSIRO-designed Wildcat SLAM to accelerate the development of their mobile robot’s autonomy stack.

“It was a natural fit for ADR to become an early adopter of the Wildcat SLAM technology,” explains Dr Joe Cronin, Operations Manager of the Queensland-based ADR.

“Firstly, and most importantly, utilising the technology removes personnel from potentially hazardous areas as they can conduct inspection tasks remotely. Secondly, it assists in completing the job faster and more efficiently with a higher resolution result. For example, one application for monitoring the results of blasting will assist with better fragmentation control, resulting in reduced explosives consumption, more efficient drilling and faster development.”

Read more here.

Australian Droid and Robot equipped with Wildcat
Australian Droid and Robot equipped with Wildcat tech.

Australian Droid and Robot equipped with Wildcat tech.

Head shot Stela Solar
National AI Centre Director, Stela Solar.

National AI Centre Director, Stela Solar.

Major New Initiatives

National AI Centre

Announced in May as part of Australia’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Action Plan, the Australian Government is investing $53.8 million over four years to establish the National AI Centre and four AI and Digital Capability Centres to lay the foundations for an Australian AI and digital ecosystem.

As the national science agency, and housing some of the country’s leading capability in AI research and technology development, CSIRO was chosen to lead the establishment of NAIC.

NAIC will drive business adoption of AI technologies by coordinating Australia’s AI activity, expertise and capabilities to improve productivity and lift competitiveness. It will also address barriers that SMEs face in adopting and developing AI and emerging technology.

Learn more about NAIC here.

Next Generation Graduates Programs

Announced in December, we’re working in partnership with industry and universities to grow a pipeline of home-grown, job-ready graduates to unlock the immense economic opportunity offered by AI and emerging technologies. 

The Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Graduates and Next Generation Emerging Technologies Graduates Programs expect to fund at least 480 nationally competitive scholarships to attract and train the next generation of technology specialists.

We’re working in partnership with industry and universities to grow a pipeline of home-grown, job-ready graduates to unlock the immense economic opportunity offered by artificial intelligence and emerging technologies, such as robotics, cyber security, quantum computing, blockchain and data.

Learn more about this initiative and apply here: https://bit.ly/3Fqb3Li

Collaborative Intelligence (CINTEL) Future Science Platform

The newly launched $12 million Collaborative Intelligence (CINTEL) Future Science Platform aims to move beyond machines replacing people or automating their jobs, and instead to create teams that maximise the benefits of both human and machine intelligence.

One of CINTEL’s first projects will draw on the expertise of CSIRO’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group who recently claimed a silver medal in the international DARPA Subterranean Challenge. The challenge, which has been described as the ‘robot Olympics’, involved using teams of robots to explore and locate objects in unmapped underground environments under the supervision of a human operator.

Learn more here.


  1. IT is great to see such a great series of outcomes and achievements

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