This article was first published in The Australian newspaper.  

The robotics and autonomous systems sector is growing rapidly, and is set to be worth $23 billion by 2025. From self-driving cars and IoT-connected cities to autonomous drones creating 3D maps of underground mines, there’s no denying we’re in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution — the intersection of the physical and digital worlds.

As we navigate this period of digital transformation, the country’s robotics opportunity lies in using robots and sensors to capture information about complex environments and automate tasks that would otherwise be completed by humans in high-risk situations and at a greater cost.

As a nation, Australia has an enviable robotics sector and it’s largely concentrated in Brisbane. We’ve had to be smart and develop technology to directly meet our own needs, particularly given our size and sparse population. As a result, we now lead the world in remote sensing technologies. In fact, we were the first country to automate our ports, while our mining sector has been a rapid adopter of the new technologies.

Collaboration for critical mass

The Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group at CSIRO’s Data61 is one of the world’s leaders in robotics research, with capabilities ranging from legged robots and 3D mapping through to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles.

Last year, Data61 led the formation of the Sixth Wave Alliance, a consortium bringing together Australian industry, research, and government to promote and facilitate the adoption and creation of robotics and automation technology for the benefit of Australia.

Collaboration will provide the critical mass to address large-scale Australian and international challenges using robotics technologies, solidifying our reputation as a global leader in robotics. Our major industries, particularly mining and agriculture, are primed to be transformed through robotics and autonomous systems. Not only will this have a positive impact on these existing industries, it will allow us to create entirely new ones.

Clusters accelerating innovation

Industry and research clusters — geographic areas with a concentration of a specific innovation — also play a critical role in creating a strong sector with national impact. An example of this is Odense, Denmark, which has nurtured a cluster of activity around robotics arms, turning the small city into a global robotics powerhouse.

Likewise in Brisbane, Data61 and local universities like the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) form a cluster that serves to accelerate the innovation and growth of Australia’s robotics sector. This week Data61 is expanding its robotics research facilities, with the launch of a 600sqm Robotics Innovation Centre in Pullenvale, Queensland. This new facility will house the Southern Hemisphere’s largest motion capture device, a pool for testing underwater robots, and be the base for world-leading robotics research projects.

Data61’s existing robotics infrastructure includes dedicated mechanical and electronics engineering laboratories, several high-end rapid prototyping machines, large sheds for indoors systems testing, an open-air UAV flying area, and outdoor testing areas including a forest and creek.

All of this robotics research infrastructure is a national asset available to government, industry, and academia, and will ultimately facilitate stronger R&D collaboration across Australia’s robotics sector.

Leading the way globally

Australia is well on its way to being recognised internationally as a leader in robotics. A team from Data61 was selected as the only Australian entity to compete in the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) SubT Challenge, and one of seven teams to receive up to US$4.5 million in funding from DARPA across the three-year challenge.

There’s no shortage of examples of Australian innovation in the robotics and autonomous systems field to draw on, from QUT’s work on a vision-based robotics tool designed to give extra ‘hands and eyes’ in the water for protection of the Great Barrier Reef to a robotics system developed by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) for maintenance of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. QUT was also crowned the winner of the worldwide Amazon Robotics Challenge in 2017, firmly putting Brisbane on the map in the global robotics space.

We’re facing the prospect of Australia becoming a global leader in robotics and autonomous systems, transforming our existing industries and creating new ones, while developing technologies with global impact. To realise this real opportunity, we need to foster an environment that allows us to develop new technologies and talent within our shores, rather than importing them, while mobilising that R&D capability through collaboration. In other words, it’s time to program and direct our force to capture the benefits for Australia.