February 17, 2010, 10:34 PM — Meet Hugh F Durrant-Whyte, the man who wants to automate Australia. This master of machines reckons there is an unmanned robot for every labour-intensive and dangerous job in the country.
Durrant-Whyte, research director at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems (CAS), has designed robots for industries including mining, sea exploration and agriculture that can outperform human ability in a variety of specialised skills.
For instance, some farmers are using his unmanned dwarf helicopter to automatically seek and destroy two plant species over a 500km area, eliminating the need to carpet-bomb crops with dangerous pesticides. The farmers may also soon be able to send out unmanned prime movers to sow fields. The Department of Defence, research scientists and oil barons are using his small submarines to search for untapped oil and gas fields and map the hostile ocean depths off the Far North coast.
Miners in Western Australia's Pilbara region can leave the canary at home and send in automated drilling machines. And while some may be slightly miffed, his robotic systems are driving those colossal 300-tonne trucks in the West Angelas mine (in Central Western Australia) without human help. In fact, Durrant-Whyte says the entire Pilbara mining industry will use robots, operated remotely hundred of kilometres away in Perth. "All mines in the Pilbara will be run from the Regional Operations Centre in Perth, including the process plants, and even trains," Durrant-Whyte said, adding that mines in areas such as Mongolia and West Africa could be run remotely from cities like Sydney. "I'd like to see robots in every industry in Australia." Robots on the mines employ an arsenal of lasers, radars and 3D hyperspectral imaging to help detect minerals and guide machines in dangerous areas.
Similar technology is being used in CAS' autonomous submarine research. New artificial intelligence for the machines is being developed that will allow the robots to "reason" about information collected by sensors, improving their capabilities for defence missions and exploratory research. The submarines are also in use by ecologists and gas miners to map coral distribution off Western Australia's Ningaloo Reef and Queensland's Great Barrier Reef.
He said Australia is at the forefront of robotics research and added work by CAS is geared to improving efficiency and safety, rather than reducing workforce.