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Mark Bladwell

Anatomy of One Central Park’s award-winning green infrastructure

One Central Park Sydney green infrastructure project

Since its completion, One Central Park has become a bit of a Sydney icon for a few reasons. One of the more obvious ones is that it’s covered head to toe in greenery.

The green walls covering the two towers are just part of the award-winning project’s sustainability profile. The $2 billion, 5.8 hectare precinct included $100 million earmarked for investment in green technology, including its own tri-generation plant, a recycled water network and onsite renewable energy.

One Central Park, Sydney, has one of the 'greenest' buildings in the world.

The gardens use a remote-controlled dripper irrigation system and a special mesh-covered felt to anchor the plants to the scaffolds. The gardens are maintained by Junglefy, which specialises in green walls.

Another eye-catching feature of the development is the cantilevered heliostat, which serves a couple of functions.

You can learn more about sustainable infrastructure and tour the One Central Park project for yourself at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference. To learn more and to register, click here.

“Find problems worth solving”: One medtech engineer shares the secrets to his success

Dr Chris Jeffery is a medtech entrepreneur with several innovations under his belt.

As CEO and co-founder of innovative medtech company Field Orthopaedics, Dr Chris Jeffery has worn a number of different hats. But his focus on pulling apart and solving problems is a constant.

Wanting to broaden his expertise with a bionics PhD on the way to a role as an orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Chris Jeffery was told by a mentor to “go find problems worth solving” and make a real impact.

“They sent me back out in the world to hospitals, and that was really the catalyst for change,” the CEO and co-founder of Field Orthopaedics told create.

Finding and tackling problems is life for Jeffery, who at just 31 years has achieved a surprising amount. His line from graduating in electrical and computer engineering (with an honours thesis that won the JH Curtis Award) to medical innovator has not been a straight one.

Dr Chris Jeffery, founder and CEO of Field Orthopaedics, is a medtech innovation juggernaut.

Jeffery with a Baxter collaborative robot.

He served as a Royal Corps of Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) officer after graduation, receiving an Army Capability Development award for developing an AI platform to speed up deployment in the field. He was then deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“You’re like the COO of the company, where the CEO or the commanding officer in the army sets the plan and the adjutant enforces and implements the plan,” he said of his service as an adjutant.


Bionics knowledge


Time spent with doctors in the Middle East inspired Jeffery to change career tack and pursue medicine. He qualified as one of five to earn a full scholarship – including a concurrent MBA during medical school – through University of Queensland’s Medical Leadership Program.

“With my engineering, doctor, business and emerging bionics knowledge, I ended up
coming back with a whole bunch of business ideas,” he said.

The first of these emerged as an answer to a serious problem he experienced on placement as a junior doctor at a children’s clinic at Ipswich General Hospital.

“The average patient was five years of age, referred because they were missing developmental milestones, withdrawing from family or friends, or having behavioural issues,” Jeffery said.

“And the question was, ‘Is it that they can’t hear, they have another medical issue, or is it behavioural?’.”

A threshold-based audiogram was required for diagnosis, with a wait time of 18 months to see an audiologist. A wait to see Jeffery? 12 months.

A kid presenting with no test would just be put in a queue – “a travesty,” said Jeffery, given the simplicity of the test and children sometimes waiting two years “before you can know what’s wrong, let alone where to start to look at how to fix it.”

He wrote a logic-based program on a Raspberry Pi to emulate the screening, later starting Audera to commercialise this IP. A consumer element also became part of the company, which makes headphones that adjust to a user’s hearing profile.

“Three years down the track – literally thousands and thousands of audiograms – we’re yet to see a perfect audiogram,” Jeffery said.

“You can make the best headphones in the world, but until they can identify and adjust to your hearing they’re pretty pointless. We used the selling of those to fund the ongoing medical innovation and creation of my medtech company.”

Mentors asked Jeffery why he was devoting so much time to ear, nose and throat problems when he wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon. He began to focus on issues with upper limb extremity devices, where four out of 10 patients suffer complications.

The wrist is a hard joint to fix because of its complexity and range of motion.

The first problem was severe arthritis of the wrist, affecting one in six people over 60. There is no way to replace the complex joint, unlike with a hip or knee, and options range from painkilling drugs to fusing the wrist.

“Essentially two joints in one, it’s got a massive circumferential range of motion,” he said.

“Importantly, unlike the hip or the knee, when those joints are loaded the bones smoosh together to stabilise them; when the hand is loaded or the wrist is loaded, if you think about how you hold a phone, the force is normally orthogonal to the axis of the bones.”

This led to a total replacement method using magnets to stabilise the wrist, which Field Orthopaedics was formed to commercialise.


Engineering dilemma


Early this year the company made news with the cheapness and speed of development for the Field Micro Screw, taking 12 months and $600,000 (compared to an average of 31 months and $39 million). The device for treating small fractures is currently awaiting US FDA approval.

These two companies and another have incubated within RER Labs, which Jeffery co-founded. The company started working on outside projects, provided they are suitable and sufficiently problem-based, in the past two years.

“I call it the engineering dilemma,” Jeffery said of the wrong way of developing an idea.

“We often want to do a project that’s cool for coolness’ sake; so we might be trained in computer vision or we’ll be enthusiastic about drones, and that’s the solution. But that to me is always like trying to put a square peg in a round hole – it limits your creativity and the simplicity and elegance of what you’re going to give someone. We like to start with actually understanding the problem first.”

Asked about the difference between leading a project and leading a company, the entrepreneur said he doesn’t see a huge division between them. For both, it’s essential to understand the purpose and what problem is being solved. What is the essence statement, the barriers and the plan to overcome these?

Jeffery receiving the Young Business Person of the Year at the Brisbane Lord Mayor’s Business Awards in 2017.

“They’re both tricky, probably for the same reasons, and that’s managing human capital: so managing the people, the team, from the project point of view, or contractors that might not be as motivated or as invested or as effective as you; versus the company, which is how do you manage the people in your team. You need to all be as invested and driven to solve that,” he said.

Things like brand messaging are a concern for a company, though perhaps not for a project.

“The only difference between project and organisation is I suppose in an organisation there’s a few other elements, and you have to change your mindset: it’s not always a technical mindset,” he says.

How can you make the jump from project leader to business leader? Dr Chris Jeffery will share his insights at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference. To register, click here

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.

The road ahead for driverless cars is a long and winding one

driverless cars

There are many problems to be solved before driverless cars are widespread – and a shortage of engineering talent is one of them.

The claimed benefits for driverless cars cover everything from sustainability to safety. The approaching autonomous era will reshape our lives, boost productivity, and change our ideas around vehicle ownership, enthusiasts say.

The peak body representing over 100 organisations from within and outside of Australia and New Zealand’s driverless vehicle ecosystem, the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI), estimates it’s an opportunity worth perhaps 16,000 jobs and $95 billion to the country.

The excitement has seen multi-billion dollar acquisitions and investments worldwide, and many headline-grabbing announcements from auto and technology companies.

There’s also a massive shortage of talent, according to Udacity, the online training academy that started offering a ‘Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree’ last year to address this. Developing the course with companies including BMW, Uber and nVidia, Udacity said the demand is such that engineers can earn a base salary of between US$67,800 and US$265,000.

“There’s just a tremendous number of companies hiring engineers in this space and the number of engineers who have the skills to contribute to this industry has traditionally been very small, because it’s come out of a graduate program at few select universities,” said the course’s lead, David Silver.

driverless cars

The Udacity team.

Silver described himself as a “normal Silicon Valley software engineer” who developed a passion for driverless cars a few years ago, though he had no experience in systems or robotics experience. Eager to get up to speed, he took as many artificial intelligence and robotics open courses as possible at outlets like Coursera and Udacity.

He eventually got a job as an autonomous vehicle engineer at Palo Alto with Ford. However, he was invited by Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun to build out the nanodegree. Silver has been there since July 2016. Thrun is a former Stanford Professor who also founded Google’s self-driving car program.

According to Silver, there have been over 7000 enrolments since its October 2016 beginning, with about half from North America, 20 per cent from Europe, seven per cent from India, and five per cent from China. The first cohort of the nine-month course graduated this October. Silver said many students have been hired by Udacity’s partners prior to graduating. The education provider also announced a taxi spinout, Voyage, last April.

The nanodegree covers a different aspect of the technology stack every month. Deep learning (another field with a current talent shortage) is covered early on, including a behavioural cloning project. This is followed by topics including computer vision, sensor fusion, localisation, control, path planning, and finally a system integration challenge on a modified Lincoln MKZ. There is an emphasis on programming in C++, which Silver said many students aren’t proficient in pre-course, but has become really crucial in the industry.

“Skill with that language is really, really important, maybe an overriding quality that automotive engineers need to have,” he said.

“As we built out the nanodegree program, we were constantly talking with the over 30 partners from industry that we have hiring partnerships with for self-driving cars and asking them what specific skills they were looking for in order to hire.”

driverless cars

The Daimler Freightliner Inspiration is a Level 3 driverless vehicle, meaning the car can manage most aspects of driving, but a passenger must be available to take over at any time.


Andrew Wilkie, an IT Project Manager at Allianz Australia, joined the US$2400 course’s third intake last December. He took his first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in 2011. Coincidentally, it was Thrun’s ‘Intro to AI’ experiment at Stanford, which received 160,000 enrolments.

He said it “changed my world” and he has since completed courses including in IoT from University of California Santa Barbara and mobile robotics from Georgia Tech. He was drawn to self-driving vehicles as he sees it as “the ultimate robotics platform”.

Wilkie was up to the system integration part of the course when we spoke to him. He was unsure if he’ll work as a driverless car engineer when he’s through, though is open to the possibility. Regardless, he said the deep learning skills are broadly applicable.

“It’s disrupting all industries and all organisations,” he said.

“I work within insurance, and we can actually apply that to cases internally to enhance our products and our offerings.

“All organisations are at this point where they need this input, and there are organisations going through this change, and trying to manage it. So there’s lots of opportunities where you currently work, to actually apply it, which then ends up morphing your role into a new job.”


Local trials


Within Australia, there are several trials of autonomous vehicles running. Within South Australia – which led the way with a self-driving Volvo demo in 2015 – driverless shuttles operate around Adelaide Airport and Flinders University. Shuttles are also operating in Perth, Sydney and Darwin. A two-year EastLink trial of driverless cars also began in Melbourne this year.

According to an NRMA study, a million driverless cars will be on roads by 2035.

driverless cars Australia

SA self-driving Volvo demo in 2015.


Acceptance among Australians is currently high by international standards, according to ADVI, which surveyed the attitudes of 5500 people in August 2016. Around 46 per cent believed that the technology would be safer than a human driver, however, people were not yet willing to put their children into such vehicles or to completely relinquish control.

“I think that’s a fair estimation of where the community is at,” said Rita Excell, executive director of ADVI.

She characterised Australia as “first followers”, though she added the country’s adoption of driverless mining vehicles is world-leading.

“I often pointed out to the Americans that we have more autonomous vehicles in Australia working and operating than they do in California,” Hugh Durrant-Whyte told create earlier this year.

“It’s just that they’re in mines and on container terminals, and so on.”

The take-up – whether or not it matches the NRMA’s prediction – will transform our built environment, said Excell. Cities have been designed around accommodating the transport task; change this and you change the city. Parking space needs will change, as will roads and other infrastructure.

According to ADVI, road upgrades, to take one example, will be conceptually different. Autonomous transport relies on clear markings and signage, and this will require different maintenance considerations. It also argues that recent planning initiatives, such as as the Growing Sydney district plan, have been made without driverless car adoption in mind.

“We believe that a whole-of-government approach is required that’s not just about road transport. It’s about cities, urban planning, systems and society,” Excell said.

There is also the need for consistent laws across states and territories. Asked about this, Marcus Burke, the National Transport Commission’s Project Director – Compliance & Technology told create that Australian Governments recognise a “nationally consistent regulatory framework that embraces innovation and ensures automated vehicles are safe” is required.

A phased reform program was agreed to between ministers last year so “conditionally automated vehicles can operate safely and legally on our roads before 2020, and highly and fully automated vehicles from 2020” Burke said.


Remaining challenges


Though there are trials running in several places in the world, these are often in areas with clear weather. Conditions such as fog, snow and rain remain technical challenges. Two other issues to be addressed are in path planning for urban areas and computational power. Urban areas have more pedestrians, cyclists, intersections, signs and other complications.

“Highway driving for autonomous vehicles is somewhat more structured and a little easier to figure out, because highways have really well-defined rules and coordinated entrances and exits and a smaller number of actors on the actual road,” said Silver. The lidar, radar and cameras generate a lot of data, which has to be processed to generate decisions in real-time.

driverless cars

Volvo and Uber joined forces to develop a self-driving taxi.

“Those three things I think – weather, urban driving and computational platforms to process high volumes of sensor data – are some of the major challenges that self-driving cars leaders are researching right now,” he adds.

Despite all the progress, there are major problems to solve before we do without our steering wheels and pedals. And like any good challenge, it’s one where lots of disciplines will have to work together.

“There’s also the security aspect of it; not just the cybersecurity but also personal security, security of data, global positioning systems, the accuracy of locations,” offers Excell.

“From an engineering perspective it’s very widespread. There are opportunities for people involved in engineering and also working together with other industries that they might not have partnered with in the past such as psychologists, human factors people, and urban planners. It really needs a coordinated approach through our engineering sector as well.” 

Experience driverless cars for yourself and learn more about the engineering challenges involved during an offsite technical forum at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference. To register, click here

It’s time to set the record straight about artificial intelligence

artificial intelligence (AI)

Artificial intelligence will be able to do many things – destroying the world won’t be one of them, says Professor Toby Walsh.

In the 2013 movie Her, a lonely man called Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his new operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Critically acclaimed, the movie won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for Best Picture.

However, the acclaim wasn’t limited to the arts community. According to one of Australia’s top artificial intelligence (AI) experts, Toby Walsh, the film resonated with his community too.

“Unfortunately, if you ask AI researchers which AI movie they like, they complain that most of them paint such a dystopian picture of what AI’s going to do to the planet,” he said.

“One that I like, and many of my colleagues have said they like as well, is the movie Her which is not a very dystopian picture at all, and gets something very right, which is that AI is the operating system of the future.”

Walsh said the way we interact with computers has evolved from plugging wires into the front panel of the computer, to machine code programming, MS-DOS with its command line interface, and ultimately the graphical user interface we are all used to today.

“The next layer is going to be this conversational one. You already see the beginnings of that in systems like Siri and Cortana,” he said.

artificial intelligence

Toby Walsh with the collaborative industrial robot Baxter. (Photo: Grant Turner/UNSW)

“As we move more to the Internet of Things, your house is full of devices that are connected to the internet that don’t have screens or keyboards. The front door, the light switch, the fridge, all of these are going to be networked together. There’s only one interface you can have with these, which is voice interface.

“You’ll have this ongoing conversation that follows you around, and authenticates you on the biometrics of your voice. It will learn everything about you and your preferences. It will be very much like the movie. People will get quite attached to this person they’re having the conversation with all the time.”

He said it’s hard to think of an area that artificial intelligence is not going to touch in some way.

“It’s going to touch education, it’s going to touch healthcare, it’s going to touch pretty much every form of business you could imagine,” he said.

“Anything cognitive that we do, you can imagine it touching. It’s hard to begin to think about what it won’t change.”


Next move


Walsh said there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what artificial intelligence is able to do.

“If you summed up all the things that you read in the newspapers, then you’d imagine it’s only a matter of moments before the machines are going to be taking over, which is far from the truth,” he said.

“There are still a lot of significant hurdles to overcome before we can actually make machines as intelligent as us, and likely more intelligent than us. We recently saw the announcement of AlphaGo Zero, where they just gave it the rules of the game Go and it learned everything from scratch in just three days, then beat the program that beat Lee Sedol (World Go champion) 100-0.

“That was pretty impressive. But we still build only narrow intelligence, programs that can do one task. We have made almost no progress on this idea of artificial general intelligence, programs that can match the breadth of abilities of the human brain.”

He suspects it will be at least 50 years before we will get to machines that will be as intelligent as us and possibly longer.

“I’m still hopeful it might happen in my lifetime, that would be a nice achievement. It’s not impossible but it could easily not happen for 100 years, or 200 years. One should always have a healthy respect for the human brain. It is the largest, most complex system we’ve seen in the universe by orders of magnitude, nothing approaches the complexity of the billions of neurons and the trillions of connections the human brain has, nothing!”


The awakening


Walsh was born in southeastern England, just outside London, and confesses that as a boy he read too much science fiction.

“From about the age of seven or eight I started to read about robots and intelligent machines,” he said.

“Maybe I didn’t have any imagination, but it’s what I decided I wanted to do in life – try and build those things that I read about. The more I thought about the problem as I got older and could understand a bit more about it, I realised it was actually one of those challenging problems that wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, like how did the universe come into existence?”

After studying maths and physics at Cambridge University, he did his PhD in artificial intelligence at the University of Edinburgh. There he met an Australian philosophy professor who invited him to Canberra to teach at a summer school each year for the next ten years or so.

“I would come out for a couple of weeks or a month in the middle of December and January, and escape the British winter,” he said.

“I learnt to love Australia in that time.”

Eventually, he landed a permanent position at National ICT Australia (NICTA) now part of the CSIRO’s data innovation group, Data61, and the University of NSW where he is Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence.

He is particularly interested in the interface between distributed optimisation, social choice, game theory and machine learning and believes now is probably the most exciting time to be an AI researcher.

“I started as a postgraduate researcher at what was the tail end of the AI boom, the expert system boom,” he said.

“It was actually already on the downswing at that point. Then it was what was called the AI winter. We’re definitely in spring, if not summer by now. It’s a very exciting time. You can’t open the newspaper and not read several AI stories.”

Of course, this increasing interest opens the door to misinformation being spread about AI as well. So, last year Walsh decided he “had a duty” to write his own definitive guide to the field: It’s Alive! Artificial intelligence from the logic piano to killer robots.


It’s Alive!


One big question, which takes up a large chunk of Walsh’s book, is what will happen to human jobs in the future if many tasks can be performed better by machines?

“We don’t really know the answer to this,” he said.

“Lots of new jobs will be created by technology, that’s always been the case. Most of us used to work out in the fields, farming. Now just three per cent of the world’s population is involved in farming. Lots of jobs were created in office and factories that didn’t exist before the industrial revolution.”

However, he acknowledged there is a chance it could be different this time around.

“Previously when our brawn was replaced we still had a cognitive advantage over the machines,” he said.

“If we don’t have a cognitive advantage over the machines, what is the edge that humans have? We have social intelligence, emotional intelligence that machines don’t have. We have creativity. Machines are not as adaptable as humans yet. It could be the case that we end up with fewer people employed than before. That is possible. One thing is absolutely certain, that there will be jobs displaced and new jobs will be created. And the new jobs will require different skills to the old jobs.”

He said the caring professions, artistic professions and scientific professions should all survive, professions where there is no natural limit to the potential of the job, unlike say ploughing fields or assembling widgets, repetitive tasks that could be done by robots and then the humans are no longer needed in that role.

Interestingly, he feels some ancient jobs will grow in stature while some newer jobs might be very short-lived.

“One of the newest jobs on the planet is being an Uber driver. But Uber are already trialling autonomous taxis. The driver is the most expensive thing in the Uber. It’s clearly part of their business plan to get rid of them as quickly as possible. That’s probably one of the first jobs that’s going to completely disappear,” he said.

“Whereas, one of the oldest jobs on the planet, with a very venerable history, is a carpenter, that is probably going to be one of the safest in the sense that hand carved objects are going to be increasingly valued. We’ll appreciate those things where we can see the touch of the human hand, and if we believe economists, their value will increase.

“In fact, if you look at hipster culture today, you can already see the beginnings of that: craft beers, artisan cheese, and hand-baked bread. It seems to me that there might be some beautiful symmetry, where we’ll actually all end up doing the jobs that we used to do 500 years ago when we were craft people.”

artificial intelligence

Toby Walsh with a Meccano robot he and his daughter assembled.


This is where the choices he mentioned previously come into play again.

“We need to think about how we might need to change education so that people are educated for whatever the new jobs are; whether we’re going to have more free time; whether income is going to be distributed well enough,” he said.

“We seem to be suffering from an increase in inequality within society and technology may amplify that. That’s certainly a worrying trend.”

Another area for discussion is how far we want AI to evolve. Do we want it to get to consciousness and what would the consequences of that be?

“Supposing machines become intelligent, but not conscious, then we wouldn’t have to be troubled, if for example, we turn them off or we make them do the most terrible, repetitive, dangerous, or other activities that we wouldn’t ask a human to do,” he said.

“So we could be saved from some difficult ethical quandaries. Whereas, if they are conscious, maybe they could be thought of as suffering in that respect, then maybe we’ll have to give them rights, so we’ll have to worry about these things. It could be useful if they’re not conscious.”


Killer robots


Walsh said there are issues regarding the use of artificial intelligence where we should be concerned. Most notable is its use by the military.

In 2015, he coordinated an open letter to the United Nations signed by more than 1000 leading researchers in artificial intelligence and robotics including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Tesla CEO Elon Musk as well as other luminaries such as physicist Stephen Hawking and philosopher Noam Chomsky. The letter called for a universal ban on the use of lethal autonomous weapons.

“Certainly today machines are not morally capable of following international humanitarian law,” he said.

“Even if we could build machines that were able to make the right moral distinctions, there are lots of technical reasons in terms of industrialising warfare, changing the scale at which you can fight warfare that would suggest to me that it would be a very bad road to go down.”

He said the world has agreed in the past to ban certain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons after seeing the horrific impact they can cause. And they also preemptively banned blinding lasers after realising the potential horror.

artificial intelligence

Playing around in the UNSW robotics lab.


His activism on the issue has seen him invited to the United Nations in both New York and Geneva to argue the case for a ban on autonomous weapons.

“It’s very surreal to find oneself in such an auditorium having conversations with ambassadors,” he said.

“It’s also gratifying how flat the world is. I had a meeting with the Under Secretary General, who’s the number two in the United Nations. He was asking my opinion about autonomous weapons. It’s been a very interesting ongoing journey, in fact.”

It has also opened his eyes to the reality of international diplomacy and how difficult it can be to get things done.

“Pleasingly they have gone from the issue first being raised less than five years ago, to three years of informal discussions, and now last year they voted unanimously to begin formal discussions, what’s called a group of governmental experts,” he said.

“I’m told, for the United Nations, that is lightning speed. But this is very slow from a practical perspective as the technology is advancing very rapidly.”

He said they warned a couple of years ago in their open letter that there would be an arms race. Now, the arms race has begun with prototype weapons being developed by militaries around the world in every sphere of the battle, in the air, on the sea, under the oceans, and on the land.

“There’s plenty of money to be made out of selling the next type of weapon to people. There’s a lot of economic and military pressure. You can see why the military would be keen to have assistive technologies,” he said.

And he acknowledged there are some arguments for autonomous weapons.

“You can see, certainly from an operational point of view, there are some obvious attractions to getting soldiers out of the battlefield, and having weapons that follow orders very precisely, weapons with super-human speed and reflexes, weapons that will fight 24/7, weapons that you can risk on the riskiest of operations, that you don’t have to worry about evacuating from the battlefield when they’re damaged,” he said.

“It’s not completely black and it’s not completely white. But I think the weight of evidence is strongly against having autonomous weapons.”

However, it is ethical questions such as this that make working in the field so interesting.

“It is like the famous Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times’,” he said.

“It’s a very interesting time, because we’re starting to realise if we do succeed, then we have to worry about exactly how we use the technology. How do we make sure it doesn’t get misused? It’s a morally neutral technology, it can be used for good or for bad. We have to make the right choices so that it gets used for good.”

AI, robotics and the future of engineering is a key theme at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference. To register, click here

Barangaroo urban renewal project wins awards for sustainability and innovation


The Barangaroo South urban renewal project has nabbed a handful of awards from the Property Council of Australia.

A focus on sustainability and innovation has paid off for Lendlease after its Barangaroo South urban renewal project won five Property Council of Australia (PCA) Innovation & Excellence Awards, including the top gong for Development of the Year.

The multibillion-dollar project, due for completion in 2023, is Sydney’s largest urban renewal project and is one of the largest commercial developments to happen in Sydney over the past decade.

As reasoning for the win, PCA Chief Executive Ken Morrison said Barangaroo has earned icon status by setting the standard for what’s possible for precinct-wide urban renewal.

“Lendlease has combined iconic buildings designed by acclaimed architects with world-leading sustainability initiatives that have transformed entire supply chains and challenged large tenants to embrace green business practices,” he said.

Once finished, Barangaroo will comprise three towers (collectively known as International Towers Sydney) plus two smaller timber buildings for commercial use. All together, the precinct has room for 20,000 office workers, 2000 residents, a hotel and more than 80 cafes, bars, restaurants and shops spread across half a million square metres of space.


Small touches, big returns


All three towers have received 6-Star Green Star ratings and a WELL Platinum rating thanks to a combination of factors. Onsite infrastructure for power, cooling, water and waste management combine to reduce the precinct’s environmental footprint. This includes 6000 square metres of solar photovoltaic panels, rainwater collection and greywater recycling, and vertical shading systems to reduce cooling needs.

To add to its ambitions, Barangaroo aims be Australia’s first carbon neutral community. Steps to achieve this include reducing the carbon intensity of the reinforcing steel by 20 per cent, and recycling 99 per cent of construction waste. It’s also one of only 17 precincts worldwide chosen to participate in the Climate Positive Development Program.  

According to Lendlease’s CEO Property, Kylie Rampa, the PCA awards highlight the many ways Australian innovation contributes to “high quality, globally attractive places that are literally changing how entire communities and cities interact”.

“These awards are testimony to our people’s talent and the drive they bring each day to their work,” she said.

“We also need to recognise the role our many partners in the private and public sector play across our business and their willingness to collaborate and partner with us to help create the best places.”

Besides Project of the Year, Barangaroo South also won PCA awards for:

  • Best Mixed Use Development
  • Best Sustainable Development – New Buildings
  • People’s Choice Award
  • Best Workplace Project (Lendlease Barangaroo)

Learn more about the design, development and construction of the Barangaroo South urban renewal project during an offsite tour at the Australian Engineering Conference. To register, click here.