Robots are front-and-centre from the moment secondary school students arrive at Wyndham Tech School.
‘Spot’ greets them out front. The Boston Dynamics dog-like robot does a little dance before leading students inside to where SoftBank’s child-sized humanoid robot ‘Pepper’ welcomes them and acknowledges Country.
The focus of the tech school – one of ten, soon to be sixteen, across Victoria – is to enable the 10,000 or so students who come through its doors to get ‘hands on’ with some of the most advanced technologies available. They will be solving real world challenges faced by local industry partners, including the council and water retailer, agribusiness, construction and transport companies and local health providers.
“The brief is to connect students to their futures,” says Wyndham Tech School’s operations manager of STEM education, Sam Nikolsky.
“How do we prepare our young people for their careers? And how do we provide a pipeline of talent for industry?”
‘National capability’ is one of four central themes in Australia’s robotics strategy discussion paper, which calls for greater collaboration across industry, research and government.
Focus areas include demonstrating the benefits of robotics to businesses, improving coordination across governments and increasing investment to scale local robotics start-ups. The paper identifies resources, agriculture, transport, medicine, and renewable energy as potential focus areas for Australia.
Wyndham Tech School might be targeting secondary students, but its model borrows from innovation clusters often used to nurture industries like robotics.
The idea of a cluster is to link up researchers and training institutions, start-ups, local supply chains and potential markets, investors and regulators, often on a regional basis.
Originally from Australia, Keay moved to California more than a decade ago. In that time, she has seen varied approaches to robotics strategies and roadmaps.
She says research about innovation clusters by the Kauffman Foundation highlights critical success factors. These include density of activity; shared metrics; strong connections between research, industry and funding; the ability to respond to opportunities; and supporting greater diversity (in all respects) across the robotics workforce.
While Australia doesn’t have many mature robotics industries and not much investment, Keay says, its established leadership in certain niche areas like mining, ports and field robotics can be viewed as an opportunity.
She adds that in the US, larger established technology companies tend to dominate policy discussions. Whereas, Australia can make robotics a focus without inheriting the baggage of larger incumbents.
The country is also geographically well suited to providing air, sea and land testing facilities and grounds.
“You have to focus on areas where there is strength, and this is not news to anybody in the Australian innovation ecosystem,” says Keay.
Transferring robotics technology out of the lab and into the real world requires early stage funding, connecting to market, trial sites (testbed facilities), rapid certification, local manufacturing, supply chains, documentation and standards.
“Making those pathways as rapid as possible, that is significant,” she says.
Then there’s the need for investment and access to larger markets crucial for local robotics start-ups and companies.
“Australia is a lovely place to come for a visit,” Keay says. “I think we could be inviting foreign investors to come down for a particular event once a year, to promote the robotics industry in Australia.”
Dr Nicole Robinson is Director and co-founder of Australian company LYRO robotics, which develops robotics solutions for the food industry. Based in Queensland and Victoria, the company also manufactures its products in Australia.
LYRO’s robots use computer vision and deep learning to replace repetitive, labour intensive tasks like packing fresh fruit and vegetables; everything from pineapples to avocadoes to punnets.
Robinson says more capital investment and funding opportunities would help “talented start-up teams to grow at a competitive scale, including financial support for start-ups to access world-class prototyping facilities and real-world testing sites to accelerate product iteration and technical maturity to fast-track market entry.”
The company’s next stage will be to explore overseas opportunities for expansion outside of Australia, and she says further support would assist.
Robinson sees the agriculture and food supply sector as a clear opportunity for developing and deploying robotics.
“Australia is also a globally significant agricultural exporter with around 70% of Australia’s total agricultural production sent overseas, making Australia an excellent place to develop robots that are specialized for agriculture, food warehousing, and other stages of the food supply chain.”
She hopes the robotics strategy will provide greater support for local start-ups that are designing and manufacturing products locally, further boosting Australia’s advanced manufacturing capabilities.
Professor Anthony Elliott, Bradley Distinguished Professor of Sociology at University of South Australia and book author, says Australia is already late to the table.
Elliott says the digital revolution –the intertwined forces of artificial intelligence, big data, the internet of things, advanced automation and robotics – is a “technological tsunami” transforming the world.
“This is a revolution happening in real time.”
In 2019, Elliott co-authored the ACOLA report on the effective and ethical development of artificial intelligence for Chief Scientist Alan Finkel and the National Science and Technology Council.
But work at the national level has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as changes in governments and prime ministers, he says.
“I think it means as a country we’re quite a long way behind the eight ball, where other countries are in terms of addressing questions about digital skills, digital literacy, and how to confront the kind of challenges of the decades ahead,” he says.
Elliott says the current government’s approach – to focus on STEM in discussions about artificial intelligence and robotics – is fundamentally misguided. He argues the perspectives of social sciences, humanities, creative arts, and philosophy need to be part of the plan.
“Not everyone in robotics needs to be an engineer, and they certainly don’t need to all have a PhD,” Keay says.
“We can grow the robotics ecosystem by introducing it to people who might not have considered this a viable workplace.”
As well as STEM skills, robotics needs creative people, sales, quality assurance, programming, trades and technical roles, Keay says.
“I literally know companies that have said, ‘Can we get someone throwing boxes at the robot for the summer?’”
Wyndham Tech School is keen to show students you don’t necessarily need to be a robotics engineer, or do a four year degree to be able to work with technology.
By actively tailoring its programs for subjects like art and English, the school has lifted its female engagement from 5% a couple of years ago to 55% today. Examples include running storytelling workshops through video game development, or ceramics using the facility’s brand new 3D clay printer.
Each tech school is co-located within a TAFE or University campus and acts as a hub for growing technical skills and capability to meet the needs of local industries and communities. Wyndham Tech School is hosted by Victoria University. As well as robotics, the facility runs programs targeting artificial intelligence, game development, virtual reality and smart cities, to name a few.
The facility is also making these technologies more accessible to local business and industries through industry showcase events. “We also want to support, and help to grow the jobs and the opportunities in our local area as well,” Nikolsky says.
Whether those future jobs and opportunities are in robotics, might depend on the success of the Australian Government’s strategy in growing the local robotics industry, increasing business uptake, and building a diverse workforce and community acceptance.
Robinson says “the National Robotics Strategy represents a critical opportunity to help accelerate the design, development, adoption and export of robotic solutions that will create wide-scale global impact and further promote Australia’s capability to contribute to the global robotics industry”.
Success will ultimately hinge on where the strategy sits as part of the government’s agenda, according to Keay.
“If it is going to be the feature of the progress of the country – brought out as talking point or photo opportunity – then the people right at the top care about the outcomes,” she says.
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