Australia on conveyor belt towards first National Robotics Strategy

Resources, agriculture, transport, medicine and renewable energy are potential focus areas for increasing Australia’s uptake of robotics, according to a National Robotics Strategy discussion paper released today.

Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic says the discussion paper will help guide a conversation about the growth and responsible use of robotics in Australia.

“Australia has all the ingredients to grow our robotics industry – world-class research institutions, a highly skilled workforce and favourable business conditions,” Husic says in a statement. 

Read more about the National Robotics Strategy: Send in the robots!

Robotics is one of three critical technologies outlined by the Government last year, along with artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Responses to the discussion paper will inform the final strategy, including the Australian Government’s vision for robotics, the industry’s role in growing the economy and revitalising manufacturing, as well as addressing a range of challenges, covering everything from attracting talent to addressing workforce impacts and building public trust.

Husic says, “importantly, if we want to grow advanced manufacturing in Australia, we will need to explore ways to boost our robotics and automation capabilities.”

The discussion paper says robotics has the potential to generate social, economic and environmental benefits.

“Australian industries have already adopted robots to work alongside humans to create safer and more productive work environments, from reducing pesticide use in agriculture, to improving asset management, and helping respond to bushfires,” the paper says.

Capability, trust and inclusion, skills and diversity and increasing adoption are identified as the paper’s four main themes.

Under National capability, the paper identifies the need to demonstrate practical use cases to Australian businesses, improve collaboration between research and industry, as well as coordination across state and federal governments. 

The discussion paper flags the need for greater investment in seed and start-up phases and filling supply chain gaps and it notes that the government has targeted $1 billion under the National Reconstruction Fund to expanding critical technology, including robotics.

Public trust is key to the success of the robotics industry in Australia, the discussion paper states under ‘Trust, inclusion and responsible development and use’. 

People are more likely to trust technology when they understand it, feel in control, and when adoption is normalised, the paper says. 

The discussion paper outlines an opportunity for Australia become a leader in the “lawful, ethical and responsible development and use of robotics and automation”, which could include researchers, engineers and industry working more closely with social scientists and ethicists.

To grow trust, the strategy will need to address concerns about employment – fears about robots taking the jobs of humans – and better communicate the benefits such as delivering better products, improving productivity, and responding to consumers, the discussion paper says. 

Under ‘Skills and diversity’, the discussion paper reiterates the importance of fostering interest in STEM fields in education and increasing the number of graduates, with work already underway already through the Diversity in STEM Review.

The paper notes the robotics industry would benefit from improving diversity, particularly by increasing the number of women, First Nations and other underrepresented groups in the robotics industry. 

The final theme is ‘Increased adoption’. 

While Australia leads in some sectors, like mining; in others, including manufacturing, it lags behind (ranking 30th globally in the take-up of industrial robots).

The paper specifically flags the potential for robots to assist with workforce shortages and improving productivity in sectors like agriculture and healthcare. 

According to the discussion paper, small and medium businesses face challenges in adopting robotics, where short-term costs and risks present barriers, despite many long term benefits.

Here, updating legal frameworks, regulation and standards to include robotics could help in addressing business uncertainty and concerns about potential liability.

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