News National Australian robots designed for rescue missions face off in US competition
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Australian robots designed for rescue missions face off in US competition

An Australian-made robot called 'Emesent's Hovermap' will take on rivals in a major US robots competition. Photo: CSIRO
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From navigating dangerous mines to spotting toxic leaks in nuclear power plants, Australian-made robots are set to change life as we know it.

But first, our inventions are being tested against some of the best in the world.

This year, a team of top Australian researchers is competing in a prestigious robot competition at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the United States.

Called the ‘Subterranean Challenge’, five autonomous robots from 10 competing teams must map, navigate and search underground environments under strict timed conditions.

A breakdown of DARPA’s ‘Subterranean Challenge’ competition. Photo: DARPA

Leading the Australian team is Dr Sue Keay, a research director at CSIRO’s Data61 network.

“Our team was the only team outside of the US that was funded by DARPA to participate,” Dr Keay told The New Daily.

“That was on the basis of our great navigational capability for robots.”

Meet the robots representing Australia

Our robots include:

  • Bruce, a six-legged hexapod designed to be operated underground
  • Superdroid, a lightweight robot that runs on two rolling tracks that can drive over or under rocky terrain, and
  • Emesent’s Hovermap, a 3D-image-producing drone that can map dangerous or inaccessible sites like underground tunnels, bridges and transmission towers.

In the competition’s first challenge, robots must navigate a complex tunnel that extends for several kilometres with tight passages and vertical shafts.

In the second task, robots must explore and identify items in an abandoned nuclear power plant.

For the third assignment, robots must climb through and map a rocky underground mine.

“The challenges are designed to replicate a disaster response scenario,” Dr Keay said.

“Mines are inherently dangerous operations. If there is a suspected gas leak or collapse of some description, it makes more sense to be able to send a robot down rather than putting someone at risk.”

The competition’s original concept began due to the need for high-tech emergency response solutions after Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in 2011, she said.

Bruce crawling inside an underground cave. Photo: CSIRO

“Robots are the way of the future. We need to be adopting robots and automation technologies now,” Dr Keay said.

“Other countries have quite mature strategies around how they’re going to put these in place, and we need to be able to keep up with the rest of the world.”

Dark factories, where the lights are out and all the work is entirely operated by robots, already exist in Australia.

And automated factories are just the beginning.

Data from AlphaBeta Advisors consulting agency shows digital innovation is predicted to deliver $315 billion to Australia’s economy over the next decade.

Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in agriculture could export goods and services worth $10 billion to $25 billion a year by 2028.

Speaking before International Women’s Day, Dr Keay said we urgently needed to boost the number of women in robotics.

Only 27 per cent of Australia’s STEM workforce is made up by women, and only 10 per cent of robotics jobs are held by women.

“We can’t wait around until somehow the world is an equal place before we encourage women to go into robotics,” Dr Keay said.

“We’re probably missing out on developing a whole range of technologies simply because they’re only being considered through the lens of one gender.”

Her advice to aspiring female roboticists?

“Be persistent,” she said.

“You will always be made to feel like you’re different and don’t belong, so you need to be comfortable being the only woman in the room.”

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