Monthly Archives

June 2018

Autonomous vehicles are going to be a data gold mine

Autonomous vehicles are one of the big engineering challenges of the 21st century, and not just because of the tech itself.

Programming autonomous vehicles is a challenge, but so is finding ways to manage the massive amounts of data and information they will gather while going about their business. Just how much data are we talking? Here’s a look at autonomous vehicles by the byte, and what we can do with all that info.

See an autonomous vehicle in action and learn more about the engineering challenges behind this emerging technology at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference. To register, click here

What happens to infrastructure design when AI has a say?

AI and infrastructure design

What happens to design and consultancy in a world in which computers are doing most of our thinking? At the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference, Tim Chapman will fill us in.

Up until recently, computers and digital assistants have simply done what humans have told them to do. Even apparently complex and ‘intelligent’ computer systems have only been able to carry out tasks that they have been pre-programmed for.

For example, online insurance systems have offered immediate quotes. Collaborative robots have helped with tasks on factory floors. Doctors have utilised technology to conduct surgery more safely and with greater precision.

But today, computers are beginning to think and learn and make their own decisions without a human programmer telling them what they should decide, said Tim Chapman, Leader Infrastructure London Group with Arup. It’s a brave, new world, indeed.

“For instance, think of how a doctor might spot moles, and how they might describe the factors that would lead to them thinking that a mole might be cancerous,” Chapman said.

“Perhaps it’s pink around the edges, or rough, or it has a changed shape or begun to bleed. Nowadays you could show a computer 10,000 moles, with a description of whether they went on to become malignant or not. Then you could leave that computer to work out the characteristics of each one by various methods, and trust it to recognise moles that are likely to become cancerous in the future better than the best doctor can.”


Big data


What does all of this have to do with engineering? Plenty, Chapman said. As engineers are people who have been trained to conduct complicated calculations in order to build safe structures, their jobs will likely be enormously altered by artificial intelligence. In fact in some cases they already have been.

“Right now a graduate experiences a series of reasonably mundane tasks in order to pick up their trade,” Chapman said.

“The graduates that we employ do work that is very similar to what I used to do many years ago when I was in their shoes. I didn’t have a computer on my desk when I was at their stage, but actually the tasks are fairly similar and their rate of acquiring knowledge is very similar to what mine was. But because of the automation of various tasks they now sometimes can’t learn the basics of the trade, how things really work. This potentially means they’ll become less capable professionals.

“The really big question is, how does a graduate learn their trade at all in five years’ time, when digital has really kicked in?”

Certain types of engineers will see their roles being automated sooner than others, he said. This particularly applies to roles that are less multi-disciplinary, such as the purer forms of structural engineering, which can be more easily automated or “digitised away”.

Other parts of the profession that are highly multi-disciplinary, such as station design, will be far more difficult to replicate with computers and robots because of the sheer number of processes that must be balanced, managed and optimised.

“Crudely, if you’re already working or being trained, you’re probably okay,” Chapman said.

“If you become a graduate in three or four years’ time, you might not be. And in some fields, such as transport planning, things have already changed hugely. That’s a profession where the prolific nature of Google data enables people to draw much better conclusions than you’ve been able to historically draw about how roads work. Therefore it is already having an enormous influence over how roads are designed, the capacity of networks and where improvements are required, etc.

“If I was a transport planner halfway through my career, having been immersed in the old world, but I actually have 20 more years of the new world ahead of me, I might be very afraid right now unless I was fast learning about the new world and all its magic.”

It’s all very dystopian, but Chapman said what we’re actually seeing is a natural push towards utilising technology to become more efficient and productive, as is occurring in every other industry. Some firms will win and some will lose, but the entire industry will be transformed in ways that people haven’t previously considered.

Society itself will be transformed. It is these all-encompassing industrial and societal changes that Chapman would like to highlight to his audience at AEC 2018, and specifically around how engineering design, construction and consultancy could change.

Of course, there is also positive news. Society will be offered better solutions more cheaply across all industries. Entirely new types of businesses will enter the engineering realm, as they have done in retail (Amazon), accommodation (Airbnb), taxis (Uber) and insurance (Friendsurance). These businesses will offer engineers career opportunities they’d never previously imagined.

“There are a whole lot of new providers of data coming in who are unconnected with the old ways,” Chapman said.

“They might not have the same level of skill in terms of how things are engineered, but they have a huge amount of skill in terms of how data gets managed and applied.”


Slippery slope


Chapman offers an example from geotechnical engineering, his original line of work.

“In order to work out how stable a railway embankment is, I’d dig a whole lot of boreholes along the embankment to find out exactly what it’s made out of,” he said.

“I’d test samples from those bore holes. I’d do complicated analyses to work out the most critical slip circle by which the embankment might fall down, etc. But in the future, somebody might buy data sets that could show, for instance, whether the ground is wet or dry. That will have a correlation to stability.”

“Some of the data might show the slope angle using laser or LIDAR scans of the surface. It could show whether the embankment has moved by three centimetres, or not, over the previous five years. This could be done with data sets and without any engineering knowledge.

“On a Friday afternoon, a job that would have taken me six months and $200,000 to do traditionally, could be started and finished – and possibly even more reliably than it would have been done before!”

In terms of engineering design, consultancy and construction, humans will always be relevant, Chapman said. But their relevance will change enormously. Those who are prepared for such changes, including individuals and organisations, will reap massive rewards.

Tim Chapman is a keynote speaker at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference, which will focus on AI, robotics and the future of engineering. To register, click here.  

If you want sustainable cities, you need to first consider resilience

sustainable cities

Strengthening resilience today is a prerequisite for achieving sustainable cities in the future, says one industry expert.

The term ‘sustainability’ is often used interchangeably with ‘environmentally friendly’. However, for cities, sustainability doesn’t just mean going green – it means staying agile, preparing for turbulence and adapting to changing times. Richard Palmer, director of sustainability at WSP, speaks with create before his appearance at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference about why cities need to consider resilience before thinking about sustainability.

create: How do sustainability and resilience tie in with each other?

There’s a global discourse around resilience, which is led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, an academic research organisation that looks at socio-ecological systems, global systemic impacts and areas where particular shocks could have a profound impact on some of those things that underpin our society in many ways.

But climate adaptation is now being framed very much as resilience. In an urban environment, in a changing climate, what do we do to manage the risks of major storm events or major heatwaves?

And then there’s another element of resilience that the Rockefeller Foundation and the 100 Resilient Cities program are touting, which is around social, political, economic and physical resilience. That’s the ability of cities to withstand shocks, whether that shock is a terrorist attack or a major storm event. Do we have the systems in place that allow people to bounce back quickly?

create: As an engineering company, what sort of things are you looking to do with the infrastructure you’re working on to withstand shocks?

Richard Palmer, director of sustainability, WSP.

It’s about embedding the climate resilience aspect. Understanding future risks and designing for them is an obvious first step. Working on projects like Sydney Metro, for instance, it’s undertaking broad climate adaptation planning. Starting to understand what elevated peak storm events mean in design terms. What do elevated wind
events mean when considering a bridge? What are the heatwave events that might impact a major urban area of Western Sydney, for instance.

We are also looking broadly at how modal diversity can play a role in absorbing shocks. So across metropolitan Sydney, people’s access to multiple modes of transport is a concern. It puts a level of economic burden on those with multiple car ownership. In any kind of evacuation or emergency scenario, the lack of modal diversity has a material impact on a city’s ability to respond.

create: From a sustainability point of view, where is WSP strong?

An area we are certainly aspiring to be market-leading is around how we approach reconciliation with Indigenous Australians, how we build both a design-level relationship with traditional owners, as well as a procurement and operational relationship.

So we’re working at building relationships with Indigenous designers to reflect Australia’s first peoples in the projects we work on, physically creating places and developing projects that are an authentic realisation of where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians see themselves in an urban context.

That’s tied in with sustainability partly from an equity perspective but also partly from the lens of inheriting a birth right of the longest continuous civilisation in history, which is what sustainability is about. I wouldn’t say by any stretch of the imagination that we’ve got it right, but we’re on the journey at both a corporate and project level.

create: Who are the world leaders?

Northern Europe and Scandinavia have always been strong in moving the needle on engineering and urbanism. A very interesting entrant into the space has been Side Walk Labs, a business within Alphabet, Google’s holding company. They have engaged with the Toronto waterfront and it is among the best work that I have seen in the public domain in terms of the future of cities with a sustainability and digital overlay.

We always tend to focus on rich cities but I think in many ways, there are a number of South American cities that are starting to get traction. Curitiba gets a lot of press for its bus rapid transit system, which I think is something we might be able to learn from. 

Richard Palmer will be speaking about the intersection of sustainability and resilience at the Australian Engineering Conference this September in Sydney. To register, click here.

With autonomous robots on the rise, what do engineers need to know?

autonomous robots

As collaborative robots give way to autonomous ones, the future is not as frightening as you might think, says Professor Elizabeth Croft, presenter at the Australian Engineering Conference 2018.

When her daughter came home with a textbook that said robots are designed by ‘scientists’, Professor Elizabeth Croft was very surprised. Most of the driving force behind robot technology and capability is coming from engineers, she says.

“I had a bit of a fit when I saw what the textbook said. I told my daughter, ‘No, actually, engineering is pushing the forefronts of robotics. Science, art and design all contribute and help us to think about it, but the engineering part is what allows us to continue to innovate,” said Croft, dean of the faculty of engineering at Monash University.

When Croft talks about the future of robotics, she’s not discussing the manned ‘collaborative’ machines that, for instance, help people on an assembly line to lift engine blocks into car bodies and that switch off when their operator is absent. She means fully autonomous robots.

“Collaborative robots, or ‘cobots’, were passive in the sense that they would not act unless the operator put motive force into them,” she said. They were very safe because they were not autonomous. If the operator did not touch the cobot’s controls, it would stop.

“Where we’ve moved is to a place where now we have autonomous robots that are independent agents, such as delivery robots, robots operating as assistants, etc.,” she said.

“This is the area that I focus on: robots that bring you something. Maybe they hand you a tool. Maybe they carry out parts of an operation that are common in a workplace. We’re interested in collaborating with those agents.”

These autonomous robots are different from cobots, Croft said, because they have their own agenda and their own intent. They are not tele-operated, and they are not activated or deactivated. They have their own jobs, just like people in the workplace. They need no permission to operate.

It’s in this area that Croft works, in the space where rules of engagement have to be figured out. Several major issues are slowing things down right now, such as questions around liability and safety frameworks. Also, how does the front-end work, or how do humans interact with the robot? How do they tell it what they want it to do? If voice operation is key, then we’re clearly not there yet, judging by the voice interactions with our smartphones.

“We are the ones who first see the potential impacts. If we don’t prepare our people for that, we’ll see unintended consequences of the technology.”

And what about social and ethical impacts of technology in society? These are powerful, autonomous systems that are being developed, so how and where should boundaries be drawn to ensure Skynet doesn’t send a cyborg assassin to kill Sarah Connor?

“The underlying programming and bounding of how much autonomy those systems have really impacts what consequences can happen,” Croft said.

“So, it is very important that students of this technology think about ethical frameworks in the context of programming frameworks. Ethics must underlie the basic design and concepts around how an autonomous system operates. That needs to be part of the fundamental coding, part of the training of an engineer.”


Reducing complication


In order to tone down the Terminator imagery, Croft offers an example of how an autonomous robot might change workflow for the better.

When you buy a piece of furniture from IKEA, the instructions contain a small picture of a man and look friendly, but they’re actually quite complicated. There are numerous pieces, many just a little bit different to each other. Some are very small, some are very large, some are flexible. The assembly requires dexterity and making of choices about what must be done in what order. Constant close inspection is a must because of the numerous dependencies.

Elizabeth Croft, expert on collaborative and autonomous robots

Professor Elizabeth Croft.

“This job cannot be fully automated because it’s too expensive,” she said.

“But there are parts of that operation where it would make a lot of sense to have more automation or assistance involved.”

Such technology is very close to reality right now, but we don’t have the legal and other frameworks to make it fully operational.

“We’ve come to a place where people can grab onto a robot, move it around, show it an operation, then press a button and the robot does it,” Croft said.

“But because of legal issues, liability and occupational health and safety, there are risks that need to be managed. There are issues around getting the person and the robot to come together in a workspace in a safe way. Who’s responsible? When the operator is always in charge, then there’s no doubt. But when the operator has no longer got their hand on the big red button, then there is risk.”

Who assumes that risk? In Europe, Croft said, the risk is assumed mainly by the manufacturer of the robot, which creates a challenge for innovation. In North America, the risk is often assumed by the person or company that owns the robot. In other jurisdictions, the risk could be assumed by the worker who is using the robot.


Swapping robots with humans


Outside of the legal framework, the biggest issue is actually the workflow itself. On a typical production line for instance, if one worker can’t do a job, another is brought in to take their place. People are quickly interchangeable. The same needs to be true of a robot being replaced by a human. If the robot breaks down, the business can’t stop operating. So, humans and robots must be easily swapped in and out.

There also needs to be a clear understanding of the value being offered by the robot, to ensure the worker is comfortable to work with the robot. And the worker must feel that the robot understands what they do, too.

“It will become a greater and greater requirement for educators of people working in software engineering or computer engineering to create a real understanding of the impacts  – ethically, socially, environmentally – of the designs they create,” Croft said.

“We’ll need professionals interested in public policy and engineers with a strong ethical framework. The engineers are creating the future of technology. We are the ones who first see the potential impacts. If we don’t prepare our people for that, we’ll see unintended consequences of the technology.”

What kinds of technology will engineers need to use in 10 years? 20 years? 50 years? Elizabeth Croft will be part of a panel discussion about how engineers will partner with technology in the future at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference. To register, click here

The people’s engineer: Why you need to keep end users on the mind

humanitarian engineering

Engineers directly and indirectly impact the lives of people in the communities in which they work. Ahead of his session at the Australian Engineering Conference 2018, Gavin Blakey, Chair of the Board for Engineers Without Borders, says engineers need to think more about them when finding solutions to problems.

Engineering is a profession that produces technical solutions, but Gavin Blakey OAM believes a combination of people and technical skills is fundamental to being a successful engineer. The civil engineer’s career has been marked by a focus on the people side of engineering and openness to change and new ideas.

Born and raised in Cairns, Blakey attended James Cook University and started his working life with a Queensland consulting engineering firm before moving to Brisbane.

“I joined Brisbane City Council as I wanted to work for a large and diverse organisation. I’ve had the opportunity to work in 12 or 15 different roles ranging from geotechnical engineering to business development to flood management to asset management, but I’ve always wanted to incorporate more the people part of engineering,” Blakey said.

Back in 2015, Blakey took leave from his job as the asset engineering manager for Brisbane City Council to work as the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia In-Country Manager for Cambodia and Vietnam for six months.

He was attracted by the opportunity to be exposed to different cultures and ways of doing things.

“I am inspired by young Cambodians wanting to make a difference in their community. I’m also very inspired working with young professionals in their 20s and 30s, and that motivates me to get out into the field and try out new areas I haven’t been exposed to before,” Blakey said.

Blakey said working with international NGOs, social entrepreneurs, EWB field volunteers and a variety of professionals “stimulates your thinking and you create more effective solutions by looking at things from a different angle”.

“The caliber and commitment of people working in this sector from all over the world is inspiring,” he said.


Big-picture thinking


Gavin Blakey Engineers Without Borders humanitarian engineering

Gavin Blakey holding a map of Tonle Sap lake’s unique hydrological system. During his time in Cambodia, he helped the Osmose eco-tourism team at Prek Toal floating village, located on the Tonle Sap lake in Siem Reap Province. (Photo: Alexandra Nash)

The journey from asset engineering manager to EWB In-Country Manager started when Blakey discovered EWB’s annual Link Festival (a conference about design, technology and social change) in 2013. He found the diversity of people in humanitarian engineering and more equitable gender balance compared to engineering in general very appealing.

After attending Link Festival, Blakey invited EWB Australia CEO Lizzie Brown to speak at Brisbane City Council and was amazed when 50 people from a range of ages and professions turned up.

“It really resonated with people from all backgrounds. I’m often asked, ‘Is humanitarian engineering only for engineers?’. The answer is no, we need people with a range of experiences, as sustainable change comes from people with a wide range of backgrounds and experience working together,” he said.

Blakey was invited to join the EWB board, where he is now helping develop strategies to make a difference through humanitarian engineering, including expanding opportunities for pro bono engineering in Australia.

This big-picture work with the EWB Board is in contrast to his current, hands-on role, where he is using his expertise to trial a new and innovative approach to facilitating sector-wide change in the emerging engineering sectors in Cambodia and Vietnam. If successful, the approach will be rolled out across Australia and internationally.

Traditionally, EWB placed engineers with community partner organisations to foster capacity building. The new approach promotes sector-wide change by working concurrently with EWB’s in-country and international partners to identify and implement the best solutions to improve the lives of some of the poorest communities in our region.

As Blakey explained: “If we can influence change at sector level, we can have a greater impact. We are helping to bring organisations together to share what works effectively, so they are using and sharing knowledge rather than each creating knowledge separately.”


Developing people skills


All three of EWB Australia’s current international programs – Professional Skills Development, Sanitation in Challenging Environments, and Assistive Technologies and Livelihoods – are using the new approach.

“If successful, we will use the model in Australia and other countries, and share it with other EWBs around the world,” Blakey said.

Blakey said the experience has already influenced how he will approach his job at Brisbane City Council.

“Being exposed to different cultures and environments will help me be more effective in my role as an engineering manager. One of the learnings for me is that I recognise the importance of involving people from the beginning of the process,” he said.

“I will think more about the people who are going to be using the service or infrastructure, and how they might be able to be involved in the process to achieve the best outcomes.”

The ability to work with communities and other professionals is something the certified workplace coach believes all engineers can foster. He advises young engineers “to develop your people skills, as you will be a much more effective engineer if you can work with clients, other professionals and fellow engineers. Employers recognise people skills complement technical skills and want people who take initiative and are willing to learn.”

He also recommended getting a mentor or working closely with people who have skills and abilities you would like to gain.

“Ask their advice; people are willing to share advice, it’s simply a matter of asking,” he said.

Experienced engineers also benefit from the mentoring process. Blakey encouraged more senior engineers to “take the time to work with younger engineers as they have passion and drive and are inspiring to work with.”

To foster connections, he advised being open and hands on.

“Share skills and experience in a way that works for them. This might be through conversations or guiding them through a project or working directly with younger engineers,” he said.

“It is stimulating and you can discover other ways of doing things you might not have found out if you stayed in your comfort zone.”

Gavin Blakey Engineers Without Borders humanitarian engineering

Blakey leads a professional development workshop in Kampot with the EWB Cambodia and Vietnam volunteers. Here he is pictured with a member of the Osmose eco-tourism team (centre right), an EWB volunteer (far right), and the owner of the floating house.

His advice about being open to new ideas illustrates Blakey’s personal ethos that embracing change helps you grow and create a better

“One of the things I’ve discovered is making change requires making personal change,” he said.

“I discovered over time that any person can change, and that by changing ourselves, we can help to make positive change for others.”

How do engineers contribute to making the world a better place? Gavin Blakey will lead a panel discussion about this question at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference 2018. To register, click here.