THERE are robot submarines, robot aircraft and robot ground vehicles. “It’s like Thunderbirds in our lab,” says Sydney engineer, Hugh Durrant-Whyte.
Instead of the international missions undertaken by the marionette TV series, these Sydney robots are being developed for very Australian applications: to track locust swarms, monitor bushfires, identify and spray weeds in remote areas, herd animals and observe sea creatures on the ocean floor.
The wide, empty spaces made this country ideal for deploying autonomous vehicles, said Professor Durrant-Whyte, of the University of Sydney. “If you were to pick one place in the world to do field robotics, it would be Australia.”
A pioneer of robot navigation, he devised a method that allows a vehicle to be dropped into any new location and map its surroundings while keeping track of its own location, without human help or satellite contact.
This is particularly vital for ocean exploration. “Underwater you definitely don’t get GPS and you don’t have a map.”
A deep-sea robot submarine, Sirius, developed by his team, has recently surveyed the waters off Tasmania, counting cuttlefish for other scientists.
Getting robots out of the lab and into the wilds to do useful work is his main motivation.
“As an engineer, that is the satisfying thing,” said Professor Durrant-Whyte, who last night received an Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering Clunies Ross Award for innovation at a ceremony in Sydney.
In 2007 his team also carried out a world-first demonstration of two robot aircraft that could co-operate in flight and develop a strategy together based on what they detected on the ground.
This technology could be applied to problems, such as offshore search and rescue.
Professor Durrant-Whyte would also like to see robotics fully developed in the fight against bushfires. Robot aircraft could detect and track the fires, and robots, rather than people, could cut the fire breaks.
The Australian Centre for Field Robotics, which he heads, was recently awarded a $10 million five-year contract from global defence company, BAE Systems, to develop a robotic system that could survey unsafe urban environments.
It might include a small aircraft that could “perch and stare” like a bird in strategic places, and a larger version flying higher up sharing information with ground vehicles.
These robots would range from small ones to search buildings to larger ones to carry the small ones. “It’s a hugely challenging problem to integrate everything.”