Send in the robots!

When a tyre blaze broke out at a Pilbara mine site last year, a firefighting robot helped douse the flames.

In that harsh environment, tyre fires do happen. Usually, a 300m exclusion zone is put in place for safety, which means assets are left to burn, requiring part of the mine to be shut down for 24 hours.

So when mine operator Rio Tinto approached Australian robotics company BIA5 to design and build RORI (short for Remotely Operated Rescue Initiative) this was the exact scenario they had in mind.

Within minutes of the mayday call, RORI, a red firefighting robot that looks like a small tank, was dragging a fire hose hundreds of metres up the haul road towards the burning grader. And in 15 minutes the robot was working to extinguish the fire.

Seeing the robot do its job in a real-world situation was a proud moment for the company, BIA5 Managing Director Shawn Tansley tells Cosmos.

“You never want to see something catch on fire. But it was kind of nice to see it all come together.”

With about 10 full time employees, Queensland-based BIA5 designs and manufactures capable, all-terrain robots for a range of high-risk situations encountered in mining, research, policing and defence.

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RORI is a red firefighting robot that looks like a small tank / Credit: supplied by BIA5

Robotics companies like BIA5 are worth an estimated $18 billion in annual revenue to the national economy. It’s a sector Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic is hoping to grow with the announcement of Australia’s first National Robotics Strategy due in March.

When it comes to robotics and automation, field robotics – like RORI – is one of Australia’s niche areas of expertise, according to a 2022 industry roadmap by Robotics Australia Group.

But the roadmap shows on key industry metrics Australia has some catching up to do.

Robot population density – the number of industrial robots per 10,000 employees – is a standard global benchmark, measuring the take up of automation in manufacturing. Australia has 75 robots per 10,000 employees, lagging behind the world average of 113, and Singapore on 918, according to the roadmap. South Korea has 1,000 robots per 10,000 employees according to the International Federation of Robotics.

Countries with higher robot population densities – Singapore, South Korea, China – all have well-articulated robotics strategies, and are actually implementing them, Robotics Australia Group chair Dr Sue Keay tells Cosmos.

While Australia has been “pretty good” at organically growing its robotics industry, in many ways the sector remains “immature and fragmented”, she says. A national strategy can provide better links between research, government and industry as well as guideposts to help direct the industry and harness its potential.

“Australia has developed a lot of robotics, talent and technologies, but for various reasons we’ve often seen that go overseas. I’m very passionate about us making sure we have an environment here in Australia that encourages development of talent and technologies to happen onshore.”

Keay is a member of a government-appointed advisory committee led by CSIRO Chief Scientist Bronwyn Fox which is helping to guide the strategy’s development, including priority areas, issues, risks and consultation.

Pending the release of a discussion paper, Cosmos asked local and international robotics experts to offer their opinion about what issues they hope will be addressed.

Director of Monash Robotics Group, Professor Dana Kulić agrees that “Australia is kind of late to the game” in making robotics a focus of national policy and funding support.

She tells Cosmos Australia is known for its high-quality robotics research, but “sometimes the translation from the academic lab to actual deployment has been the critical gap”.

Kulić says having custom-built funding designed to support collaboration between research and industry would be helpful.

“The United States is among the most successful in this regard. There’s this very close interaction between academic researchers and industry, and more flexible arrangements,” she says.

For example, in the US there is a closer industry-academia partnership. Researchers are often involved in start-ups as co-founders or advisers, and the big Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technology companies continue to engage with universities and research institutes on new ideas, she says.

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A BIA5 robot designed to explore and survey caves / Credit: supplied by BIA5

Tansley says in order to grow, smaller robotics companies like BIA5 often need greater support in the early stages to build their capabilities and connections. He hopes the strategy can help small and medium sized companies to scale, whether that’s through export opportunities, tweaked research and development incentives or encouraging industries like mining to rapidly adopt the technology.

It’s also crucial that robotics and automation ties in with other related areas of government policy, including work on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, Kulić says.

“Robots are also embedded sensor platforms, so they’re collecting a tonne of data. So thinking about questions like data security, privacy is important… that involves people from cyber security, data science, privacy and ethics.”

These issues will come to the forefront as increasingly robots are moving out of factories and into public spaces, workplaces and people’s homes.

So-called service and social robots are being developed and deployed across a wide range of sectors including health, retail, hospitality, transport, education and security.

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Restaurant robots are becoming more common in response to staff shortages / Credit: Marcus Brandt / Getty Images)

Human-computer robot interaction specialist, Dr Katie Seaborn tells Cosmos it will be important the strategy also considers the impact of robotics on people and society, particularly in terms of diversity and inclusion.

“My big concern is always that we focus so much on the technology and we forget about the people.”

“We’ve been talking about explainable AI and algorithmic bias in the systems, about how bias is embedded in systems, for quite a number of years now. But the problem persists.”

There can be a tendency in robotics to narrowly engage with technical experts, whereas she says, it’s important to include a broader range of disciplines such as the social sciences, psychology, ethics, philosophy and diverse perspectives.

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Moxi, the robot nurse assistant used in hospitals in the US / Credit: Diligent Robotics

Technology and human rights researcher Associate Professor Maria Sullivan from Monash University says the national strategy can create more consistency within the federal system.

She says there’s an opportunity for greater interaction between states and territories particularly when it comes to issues like security, health care, and broader questions of safety, privacy, surveillance, ethics and discrimination.

Read more:

“The robot broke the child’s finger… this is of course bad”

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Once the discussion paper is released, Keay hopes to hear from the broader public as well as industry, interest groups and experts on their vision for robotics in Australia.

“I just hope the strategy is a way for Australia to take advantage of these technological advances, rather than having them thrust upon us,” she says.

“Robotics and artificial intelligence are going to have a significant impact on everybody’s lives. It’d be better if we could get ahead of how that technology is going to be applied. And make sure people can either up-skill or re-skill to make sure they feel confident in using the technology.”

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