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Robots play the field

Robots play the field

The waterfront, mining and farming are being transformed by advances in field-robotics technology.

In The Terminator movies, giant robots battle for control of Earth in science fiction while bewildered humans watch on in awe - and scramble to get out of the way. In real business, large companies already use giant robots - in a scramble for competitive advantage. After more than a decade of development, stevedore Patrick's 65-tonne driverless straddle carriers have radically changed the way cargo is moved at its Brisbane terminal. In Western Australia's Pilbara region, giant autonomous and semi-autonomous robots in Rio Tinto's Mine-of-the-Future program are drilling blast holes, crushing rocks and transporting iron ore. On farms all over the country, semi-autonomous tractors criss-cross enormous wheat fields.

These are all field robots - large machines that can guide themselves around outdoors rather than being tied to production lines such as the assembly robots in vehicle plants.

Worldwide, shipments of robotic equipment dropped by half in the first quarter of this year, the International Federation of Robotics says. Yet demand for field robots is expected to outstrip demand for other robotics technology over the next three years (see chart, page 27). Thanks to a decade of close collaboration between industry and research organisations, Australia stands to gain substantially from this demand.

Waterfront robots got their first public exposure during the bitter 1998 waterfront dispute when then Patrick Stevedores chairman Chris Corrigan warned that the company was ready to trial robot straddle carriers - the large machines that move containers inside the terminal between waterside cranes and road and rail pick-up points.

The announcement was dismissed as a stunt, but serious work on the machines had begun a year earlier when the stevedore began a project with Finnish port-equipment company Kalmar and researchers from University of Sydney's Australian Centre for Field Robotics to create an automated straddle carrier.

The partnership was formalised in the Patrick Technology and Systems joint venture, and the new company began working on a novel combination of cargo-handling technologies.

Container ports had been using automation since the 1980s, but the systems had to be built from the ground up, using fixed transponder networks buried in the terminal concrete or gantry cranes running on fixed rails. Only global mega-ports such as Singapore or Rotterdam could afford such big investments in advance.

The breakthrough for Patrick and the university team was to build a free-ranging machine that could guide itself around a terminal using a combination of pre-programing, GPS guidance and radar first designed for the Hellfire anti-tank missile. This meant the system could be economically retro-fitted in medium-size container terminals such as those in Australia.

"The greatest challenge was getting all the vehicles to work in concert," PTS chief executive Andrew Zerk says. " There are sensors on each vehicle so they can detect each other as well as receive the signal from the control tower. We have a lot of intellectual property invested in the onboard systems which run the vehicles ... as well as the work-allocation algorithms which map out paths for the current and upcoming jobs."

The first automated straddle went into operation in early 2005. By December that year, PTS was running 18 AutoStrads in Brisbane. Zerk says it took just hours to connect up 30 radar beacons across the terminal on a Saturday morning in what was supposed to be a trial run. The system operated so effectively that it was simply never turned off.

"The really exciting thing is that in such a small country with such a small domestic market, we are sitting on a technology which is so far ahead of what anyone else is doing and has a huge potential export market," he says. "The market for field robotics has only just been scratched. I am convinced that the academic depth and industry commitment we have in Australia provides an opportunity for us to absolutely dominate this field for the next few decades."

Much of this depth goes back to the work of Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, research director at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics. Working at Oxford University in the early 1990s, Durrant-Whyte developed a series of algorithms to assist autonomous vehicles in navigating uncertain terrain - systems that went on to form the basis of a range of autonomous vehicle projects. In 1995, he took up a professorship at the University of Sydney and began working on link-ups with industry.

"Australia turns out to be a great place to develop field robotics because the technology fits into the industries where we already have some kind of advantage," Durrant-Whyte says. "Other countries have developed robotics according to their own needs and interests. Japan is focusing on aged-care assistance robots; Europe is very strong in manufacturing robots; the US has a strong focus on defence robotics. In the area of field robotics, we are leaps and bounds ahead of any other country."

About the same time he started working with Patrick on the technology underpinning the automated terminals, Durrant-Whyte also began a project with Rio Tinto that involved the introduction of robotics and automation systems into mine sites. In 2002, this work resulted in the opening of a mine-robotics and telecontrol test site at the West Angelas iron ore mine in the Pilbara. In May this year, Rio Tinto head of innovation John McGagh officially unveiled the world's most comprehensively automated mine.

"The challenge was getting so many different vehicles and types of technologies to interact so that the whole system operates more like a factory than it does a mine," McGagh says. "Eventually we'll be running whole productions systems, tens of mines, and we'll be using the technology not just to replace manual systems but to deliver a higher-quality product."

The constantly changing and potentially hazardous environment of an open-cut mine has proved a challenge for field robotics developers, fundamentally differentiating field robots from automated manufacturing systems.

The director of the CSIRO's Information and Communications Technologies Centre, Alex Zelinsky, has been working on sensory input devices for automation since 1996 and in 2000 founded a company called Seeing Machines.

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"Factories are highly structured environments; they don't change very much from day to day," he says. "But taking robotics out of factories and putting them to work in dynamic unstructured environments like ports and mines requires a new level of intelligent processing and control. By investing in field robotics, we are forcing robots to interact with the environment to achieve a whole new level of productivity in areas that are challenging, remote and often dangerous."

This ability to perceive and respond to changes in the environment has rekindled interest in the way field robots can be used in the agricultural sector. At Kollarena, central Queensland, grain and beef farmer Andrew Bate is looking to field robots and other technological advances to increase the productivity of his land.

"Australian farmers used to be one of the lowest cost food producers but we no longer compete on a global stage because everyone else has caught up with us," he says. "Introducing robots isn't about reducing labour costs. It's about creating new farming systems which will enable us to double our output and respond to the rapidly increasing global demand for food."

In the same way port and mine automation projects involved the central co-ordination of automated vehicles, so too will farm automation involve the conglomeration of automated technologies. The Grains Research and Development Corporation is sponsoring the development of robotic seeding systems, Meat and Livestock Australia is funding a trial of automated aircraft designed to detect and exterminate weed infestations, and the CSIRO is working on sensor technologies.

"We will have machines interoperating to replace tractors for tasks like weeding, spraying and harvesting to make it possible to feed the world in years to come," Bate says.

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