Flying smarter

A pilotless aircraft that can make decisions for itself may not be the stuff of science fiction for much longer, thanks to the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics.

Professor Salah Sukkarieh

Professor Salah Sukkarieh at work.

Professor Salah Sukkarieh and his fellow University of Sydney scientists are bringing futuristic technologies to life. Working together in the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR), they are steering many successful projects in a strong environment of collaboration.

“Individuals do champion particular areas of research, but as a group we work cohesively – academics and graduate students together,” Professor Sukkarieh says.

The centre is based in the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies. It is dedicated to the scientific advancement of field robotics, a branch of engineering that develops autonomous and intelligent devices for use in outdoor environments.

The pilotless aircraft can fly over vast stretches of open terrain, following the growth pattern of a particular species of invasive weed and delivering targeted applications of herbicide. The project began in 2006, and has received generous funding from Land and Water Australia and Meat and Livestock Australia.

The technology of the pilotless aircraft has many benefits. It greatly improves human safety by eliminating the need for a pilot to fly vast distances across remote areas. It also enhances efficiency, as the entire process of detecting, mapping and spraying can be completed in a single flight. Fuel consumption is minimised, as the plane autonomously adjusts its flight path to follow the growth pattern of the relevant species, rather than flying in a systematic ‘lawnmower’ pattern across the entire area. The aircraft’s ability to apply herbicide only where required results in a significant reduction of collateral environmental impacts.

flying smarter

Other aircraft developed by the team can map or track other types of stationary or moving objects in open environments and there are also underwater, land and space vehicles with applications in marine science, shipping, mining and planetary exploration.

The team is also working on ‘smart glasses’ for people with dementia, which can sense a risky situation and offer instant assistance, such as directions home if the wearer strays too far. And there’s a device for people with diminished hand control – such as from stroke, motor-neurone disease or injury – that can help them to open and close their hands and thereby enhance their independence and quality of life.

The most important factor in ACFR’s success, according to Professor Sukkarieh, is being able to operate “within the context of a community willing to get on board and support the work we do. We are fortunate to have companies and donors willing to take up the challenge, invest in our projects and see them through to completion”.

This story was first published in the Sydney Annual.

Exciting future

The Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies is hoping to attract sufficient funding to establish a world-class robotics learning centre to complement ACFR’s research facilities. The proposed learning centre would allow students to work at scale with operational prototypes and real-world applications. As such, it would be a real investment in the future of robotics, cultivating the next generation of skilled engineers and cementing the University of Sydney’s reputation as a global leader in setting the agenda of this influential field.