Why Brisbane is becoming Australia’s robotics hub

The Brisbane Report guest editor Dr Sue Keay, COO of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, explains why Brisbane is leading the nation in robotics.

At the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision we are lucky to get a glimpse of many exciting developments across the nation in both robotics and computer vision. Taking a close look at robotics in Brisbane it’s clear that something special is in the water.

While Brisbane may not have a semiconductor industry, a series of chain reactions has led to the emergence of Queensland’s capital as the robotics powerhouse of Australia.

Robotics at QUT

A combination of investment by the research community, the positioning of Brisbane as Australia’s New World City, culminating in the launch of Digital Brisbane, and strong support from the Queensland Government has been the catalyst, among other factors, for Brisbane harbouring such a strong and innovative robotics industry.

The result is a series of initiatives that have seen Brisbane leapfrog the rest of the nation in growing and supporting a fledgling robotics ecosystem.

A hotbed of robotics thought leaders

In August 2017 Brisbane is the focus of international attention hosting the first ever World of Drones Congress, organised by 2015 Telstra Queensland Business Woman of the Year, Dr Catherine Ball. Catherine has also created a program to encourage girls to engage with STEM through flying drones.

Agtech Drone

The program, SheFlies, is gender neutral but aims to build girls’ confidence with drone technology, which is expected to create thousands of future jobs from piloting drones to writing code, analysing data, and design and manufacturing.

World of Drones will follow on from Robotronica, a free robotics and technology spectacular hosted by QUT that attracts thousands of robot enthusiasts. While Robotronica showcases QUT-developed robotic technology it also highlights the latest advances from around the world in both robotics and interactive design. Robotronica is a one-day event held on Sunday August 20 as part of National Science Week.

In May 2018, Brisbane will again be the focus of worldwide attention when it hosts the International Conference on Robotics and Automation at the Brisbane Exhibition and Convention Centre.

The event will attract 2000 of the world’s top robotic experts from more than 50 countries and is the first time the event has ever been held in the Southern Hemisphere. One of the reasons Brisbane was selected to host the event was because of the concentration of robotics research expertise in the state’s capital.

Drivers for the new robot economy

Brisbane has long been the test bed for many robotic technologies. The Port of Brisbane is Australia’s first autonomous port, introducing AutoStrad automated straddle carrier technology in 2005 and more recently adding automated stacking cranes.

Brisbane has seen the launch of the world’s first pizza delivery robot, DRU, the Dominos Robotic Unit. While QUT’s famous Crown-of-Thorns Starfish robot (COTSbot) was first tested in Moreton Bay before being trialled on the Great Barrier Reef to control the spread of the reef-eating starfish.

So why is Brisbane becoming the nexus for activity in robotics? There are a number of drivers.

At the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision we are lucky to speak to people from a range of industry sectors. To make some broad generalisations we find that the most interest we receive is from the financial services sector.

Keen to understand how innovation will disrupt existing business models, financial services (including insurance) companies are eager to try new things. Agriculture is also one of the most innovative groups we talk to, driven by innate self-sufficiency and the pressures of labour costs and aging farming communities, the agricultural sector is quick to embrace new ways of doing things.

R&D paving the way

Robotics R&D has been underway in Brisbane for more than two decades, with CSIRO’s Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies (QCAT) specialising in field robotics developing autonomous mine vehicles as well as creating wireless sensor network technology for use in agriculture and the environment, tracking livestock and testing water and air quality.

CSIRO and QUT pioneered research on UAVs in the early 2000s, leading to the creation of the UAV Outback Challenge in 2005. The challenge attracts competitors from around the world and in 2018 will involve competing teams using their UAVs to autonomously collect a blood sample from a rural property and deliver it back to base.

When solved, this medical express challenge will have enormous implications for the delivery of health services in remote regions, providing many Queenslanders with access to services previously not available.

And Brisbane's researchers are making an impact internationally. Team ACRV from The Australian Centre for Robotic Vision at QUT held off 16 teams from 10 countries to win the 2017 Amazon Robotics Challenge (and $US80,000) at RoboCup in Nagoya, Japan. 

The team's custom-made robot, Cartman, was designed to automate picking and packing - something Amazon will be watching very closely for use in its own operations.

The University of Queensland (UQ), in association with Mining 3 (formerly CRC Mining), has been pioneering innovations in autonomous mining. And a new UAV has been designed at UQ, resulting in high efficiency quad-rotors that can help in search-and-rescue operations.

UQ worked with Brisbane unmanned aerial systems (UAS) company V-TOL Aerospace on the manufacture of the quad-rotors. Another UQ innovation is the I-Ball, an interactive smart football developed by UQ’s robotics design lab for people with a visual impairment. The I-Ball encourages participation by assisting children to sense where the ball is located.

A big advance in Brisbane’s robotics scene started in 2010 when QUT made a strategic investment in robotics with the recruitment of world-leading robotic vision expert Professor Peter Corke.

QUT is now home to the world’s first Robot Academy platform, offering free access to a range of educational robotic resources and pioneering the world’s first Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in robotics, attracting more than 60,000 students from 170 countries.

Agbot II

In 2014, the Australian Government funded a Centre of Excellence to apply computer vision to robotics. The Australian Centre for Robotic Vision is a $25m national investment headquartered in Brisbane that has seen the development of a number of new technologies, including environmental robots (RangerBot and COTSbot), robots for healthcare (social robots and orthopaedic surgery robots), agricultural robots (for picking fruit and eliminating weeds), and developing vision systems for infrastructure inspection (power poles, solar panels, among others).

Industry hard-wired into Brisbane

A number of robotics companies are formed or base themselves in Brisbane, including the Australian arm of international company Blue Ocean Robotics, Softbank subsidiary STA Solutions, Japan’s TerraDrone and homegrown companies like V-TOL Aerospace, Mawson Robotics, Skyborne Technologies, Freelance Robotics, COLETEK Robotics, to name just a few.

Startups on the circuit

Brisbane is now the number No.2 destination for startups in Australia so it is no surprise that it is leading the way in robotics start-ups. Australia’s first dedicated robotics start-up accelerator is based here, created by QUT bluebox in partnership with the Queensland Government.

The robotics accelerator leverages expertise at QUT as well as the Innovation Precinct in Fortitude Valley to help fast-track the development of a healthy robotics ecosystem in the state. Ten teams of robotic hopefuls have started the accelerator program either to develop their own robots or to work in concert with SoftBank Robotics Corp on the Pepper humanoid robot platform.

Companies such as Blue Ocean Robotics are also spawning their own spin-off companies, so watch this space. We should be seeing plenty more robotics companies in the near future.

Brisbane’s enterprising spirit

A strong maker community, an essential ingredient to supporting robotic innovation, is evident in Brisbane, which is the home of Australia’s oldest hackerspace. With a custom-built campus in Eagle Farm, partially funded via a Kickstarter campaign, HSBNE inc is Brisbane’s largest community workshop and maker collective, providing the community, space and tools for people to build their ideas.

Brisbane is also home to the first maker space hosted in an Australian library. “The Edge” was launched by the State Library of Queensland in 2010 and encourages innovation across the arts, technology, science and business, providing the tools and support to encourage people to embrace creative enterprises.

Robotics startups are also finding support via Vektor Innovations. Starting as a shared working space, Vektor founder Victor Vicario is developing an Advanced Innovation hub, which will be an advanced prototyping and manufacturing space focused on assisting hardware startups.

Brisbane Maker community activities have recently been supplemented by MeetUps with the formation of both a Brisbane Robotics Interest Group MeetUp and Artificial Intelligence MeetUp, ensuring opportunities for the free-flow exchange of ideas.

Foundations for robotics

These initiatives are supported by firm foundations with the Queensland Government making coding mandatory in the high school curriculum and also creating a Centre of Excellence in Automation and Robotics at Alexandra Hills State High School. To further encourage robotics and coding the government has been working with local councils and libraries to deliver the Advance Queensland STEM-I-AM coding and robotics grants program, designed to encourage more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to pursue knowledge in science, technology, engineering and maths.

A number of robotics and coding-related educational startups have their origins in Brisbane including Coding Kids and Junior Engineers, while the city is home to Australia’s first CoderDojo – a global movement of free coding clubs for young kids. Brisbane also hosts a chapter of Robogals, an international student-run organisation (started in Melbourne) that aims to inspire and empower young women to consider studying engineering and related fields.

Robotics as a competitive advantage

A Japanese visitor to our centre asked why they should work with us when Japan has acknowledged expertise in robotics. The same reasons that make Australia a unique continent also underpin our competitive advantage in robotics.

There are many challenges that we face in Australia that are unique, from saving the Great Barrier Reef to extracting mineral resources, producing food in harsh climatic conditions and servicing infrastructure that covers vast distances.

In applying robotic solutions to these challenges, Australia has found its niche and also its competitive advantage. The approach to solving these challenges can be applied to other industries and other countries.

More stories from the July edition of the Brisbane Report