SA watch out: Robots on the way

What do you do when you want to replace men with intelligent robotsfor dangerous surveillance missions?
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor

What do you do when you want to replace men with intelligent robots for dangerous surveillance missions?

Well first of all you hope everyone watched Transformers and not the new Terminator. But then you get together with the US and say, "there isn't anything in the market that does what we want it to do. How are we going to push this along on the cheap?"


(Credit: Commonwealth of Australia)

Then you announce a new competition and lay down over US$1.6 million for it.

Minister for Defence Personnel Greg Combet announced the international competition today. It's called the Multi-Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge, which thank goodness is shortened to MAGIC. It challenges research organisations to build robots that can act on their own, without input from remotes, conducting surveillance and reconnaissance.

Five competitors will get $100,000 to develop proposals into prototypes. South Australians will need to be on their guard. Those prototypes will be tested in the southern state in November next year. They might even be coming to a town near you, since the challenge is to have teams of robotic vehicles that can coordinate their activities in a "changing urban environment".

It's this bit that I find a little scary. "The robots must detect, monitor and neutralise a number of potential threats to meet the challenge goals and an international panel of experts will judge the entries." Neutralise? Anyone got a spare Kevlar vest?

Jokes aside, the best will get research awards for $750,000, $250,000 and $100,000 for first, second and third place respectively.

"The ultimate aim is to make these operations much safer for our military personnel, leaving the robots to carry out the dirty and dangerous work," Combet said.

Sounds good in theory. It isn't the first time government has reached into the skill sets of research facilities — and why shouldn't they? It's cheap, and in many cases, they've been funding the researchers anyway.

Yet some might question the speed of such investments.

The DARPA challenge, which awards a prize for autonomous vehicles that can best navigate a course, has been running for years. Last year's challenge was held in an urban scenario with dynamic conditions. But the benefits don't seem to have trickled into our ordinary lives. I couldn't speak about the defence applications.

The Solar Challenge, held in Australia, had its roots back in 1982. The first event was held in 1987. I was still running around in kiddy clothes. Yet how many cars have solar panels?


The Berkeley-Sydney Car
(Credit: NICTA)

Even if it doesn't yield immediate results, there are some benefits to the industry, as the Australian-US team consisting of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney, University of Technology Sydney, University of California Berkeley and National ICT Australia pointed out after its DARPA attempt.

And who knows, maybe this challenge will provide a practical blueprint. The finalists can qualify for further funding under the US Joint Concept Technology Demonstrator Program to bring their prototypes into operational capability. If an Australian competitor is among the top three finalists, that organisation would also be considered for funding under the Capability and Technology Demonstrator Program managed by DSTO.

I personally think that such machines would have to be pretty good before they're sent to the front lines. It's lives at stake here. So I don't expect Transformers or Terminator just yet. But South Australians near the "undisclosed location" might want to watch their heads.

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