A research gold mine
By Tim Groenendyk
The Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation, which was commissioned in 2007 for five years at $21 million, has now had its contract extended by Rio Tinto for another 2 years until mid-2014. Principal research engineer and RTCMA director, Dr Steven Scheding explains how the centre offers a great opportunity for researchers and PhD students to engage with a big industry partner.
The RTCMA is a major research node of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics and one of the University’s largest commercial partnerships. The centre aims to fulfil Rio Tinto’s vision of a completely automated and remotely operated mine.
One of these visions includes a recently implemented autonomous drill rig for making blast patterns.
“We work with industry to identify a suite of problems which we attempt to tackle, as opposed to say an ARC Discovery grant where the researcher would usually define the research area,” explained centre director Steven Scheding.
“In our case, the benefit is that you get the weight of a very large company behind you, and people get that job satisfaction, if you like, of seeing their work transitioned through to a product.”
In terms of developing these products Dr Scheding distinguishes between where the researchers’ work ends and their commercial partners’ work begins. “If you build one it’s a prototype, if you build two it’s a product.” he said, citing a mantra he became familiar with in his post-doctoral research in the United States.
“And it’s important to make a distinction between what can be done, and then doing it all day every day on a production basis. Our job is to prove that you can do it and then Rio Tinto’s job is to productise and use it.”
Sydnovate have been integral to RTCMA’s handling of the intellectual property of the products the centre creates, as well as managing ongoing legal administration.
“There’s actually quite a lot of work in just managing the intellectual property. So there’s a constant stream of information passing through different hands: us, Rio Tinto and Sydnovate.
“Plus, obviously the legal team have a lot to do with us because there are always negotiations on. And then there’s the high level ‘what is the IP strategy that Sydnovate should have with respect to us?’ question. ‘Is that aligned with Rio Tinto?’”
Like their parent centre, the ACFR, the RTCMA offer scholarships. Although these scholarships allow students to work on problems that could have a long term benefit to Rio Tinto, Scheding emphasises that their students’ research will primarily be ‘blue sky’ – research that isn’t commercially focused.
“We’re not forcing you to think on a day to day basis about Rio Tinto’s problems. That’s more the job of the staff here. The students get to do an interesting project that’s not necessarily guided by a specific applied problem.”
Another benefit of this sort of centre for students, Scheding explained, is access to technical support. “Half of the staff here are researchers and half are technical. That, inside the University, is a very unusual breakdown. We have a lot of support in terms of building things, writing software, even running experiments out in the field that you just wouldn’t get otherwise.
And access to state of the art gear: “We have sensors that cost a quarter of a million dollars. You wouldn’t get access to that in a normal research group that was not funded the way we are.”
“And then the last benefit is exposure to industry. Quite a lot of our people, both staff and students, have ended up employed by Rio Tinto. What could be better training?”
But for Scheding, a major reason he enjoys working with this industry is the effect his research has on Australia’s economy.
“It’s one of the few places where we can honestly say that the work that’s done here can affect Australia’s bottom line.
“So if we can work with the mining industry, with one of the biggest players, make it more efficient, therefore more productive, you can quite literally say you’ve affected the gross domestic product of the entire country.”