How can engineers help make innovation more than just a buzzword?

Where are the real opportunities to make a difference? What are the things that we can do that have never been done before? These are the questions engineers should be asking themselves.

If you’re planning to talk about innovation with Admiral Chris Barrie, you’d better know what it actually means. The former Australian Defence Force Chief says the term has been added to an ever-growing pile of business and political buzzwords. Innovation, he believes, has become heavy on talk and light on action.

Barrie will go beyond buzzwords at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference in Sydney when he joins a panel of speakers to discuss some of the big ideas that could pave the way for our prosperous nation.

“Most people I speak to who use the word ‘innovation’ have no real understanding of what that means,” he said.

Chris Barrie Australian Defence Force

Admiral Chris Barrie AC, RAM.

“I’ve quizzed bureaucrats and I’ve quizzed ministers and others, and nearly everybody has said that, in this country, it’s about a building with ‘innovation’ over the front door. When you go to Silicon Valley, though, or to other places in the United States, it’s about what people are doing in the garage. They’re building things; they’re trying new things because they had a bright idea and they got a little bit of money together, so they’re giving it a go. That’s what innovation really means.”

Australia is not short of big ideas, said Barrie. However, he believes our innovative thinkers can be stymied by restrictive laws that prevent them from putting ideas into action.

“I think Australia needs to change its bankruptcy law,” said Barrie, citing US bankruptcy legislation as a better alternative for encouraging entrepreneurship.

“I think one of the consequences of our bankruptcy law is the government has to fund everything,” he said.

“I do think a fundamental building block of our society would change if bankruptcy law changed and there would be more encouragement for venture capital to seed new ideas. Industry and even governments would be more accepting of risk and trying new things. We’re so risk-averse that we won’t try anything that hasn’t been done somewhere else before.

“There’s much less likelihood we would ever have a Silicon Valley in this country, because we don’t have the capital to take the risk of experimentation,” adds Barrie. “I think there’s a real case for us to change because, frankly, at the moment, brain drain means all our best and most talented people go to the United States. I’d love to keep them here.”

Barrie also said more big ideas should be directed to the north of the country.

“We need to look at the possibilities in Northern Australia, as I think there is a lot on offer in terms of new agriculture and new research,” he said.

Barrie believes engineers play a vital role in the future of an “innovation nation”.

“When I think about innovation and about kids in their garages building all sorts of things, I think of engineers,” he said.

“I think of people that can look at technology, look at materials and solve some of the rather persistent causes of problems. I would like to think that their imaginations would be lit up by questions such as, ‘Where are the real opportunities to make a difference here? What are the things that we can do that have never been done before?’. That’s the kind of society I think we should be trying to aim for in the 21st century.” 

Admiral Chris barrie AC, RAN, former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, will be speaking about Australia’s grand plan for the future and how engineers fit in at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To register, click here

This shuttle is helping pave the way for autonomous vehicles

autonomous vehicle engineering

Autonomous vehicles are one of the biggest engineering challenges of the 21st century. What does it take to make them roadworthy?

In Sydney, a project is under way to answer that question. Go behind the scenes and learn more about how developers are building and testing driverless tech to create transport of the future.

Take a ride in this autonomous shuttle and learn more about the engineering challenges of autonomous cars at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference. To learn more, click here.

Creating an Industrial Internet of Things from space

Since she was a small child, Flavia Tata Nardini has been fascinated by space. Now, she is the co-founder and CEO of space startup Fleet, which is working to create a “digital nervous system” to connect remote industries using nano-satellites.

She imagines a future where everything can be connected through the Internet of Things. A farmer can track every cow, or a distributor can track how every piece of fruit is faring in a shipping container.

“We have an opportunity here to create technologies that are going to change people’s lives forever,” she said.

She sat down with us before her appearance at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference to talk about the ways we can improve life on Earth – from space.

To learn more about the Australian Engineering Conference and to register, click here

We are in the middle of an explosion in drone capability, says expert


Expert Dr Catherine Ball says the way we currently use drones is only scratching the surface of what they can do for us.

When luxury Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana sent a bunch of drones down the runway of its Milan show in February this year, the fashion world was aghast. Flying robots carrying the brand’s jewel-encrusted leather handbags?

While millennial fashion models might have felt cause for concern, across the globe in Brisbane, environmental scientist Catherine Ball was celebrating the unexpected use of drones.

“It got me very excited,” she said.

“Here was a collaboration between fashion design, creativity and drones used in a scenario that you would never have thought of.”

A world leader in drone research, Ball is fascinated by the future of the technology, which stretches well beyond the world of fashion. She will be sharing her insights in a panel discussion at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference (AEC).

The production of drones for personal and commercial use is growing rapidly. Data from research and advisory company Gartner predicts the global drone market will be valued at $US11.2 billion by 2020.

Ball has delivered a number of world-firsts in environmental and infrastructure surveying using drones, monitoring bushfires, coral reefs, and collecting a range of data to assist in effective ecological and engineering processes.

She sees drones as an efficient tool for translating patterns of nature in remote locations. Her breakthrough project occurred in 2014 while working with engineering and environmental consultancy URS (now AECOM) when she flew human-sized drones to track turtle habitats along the coast of Western Australia.

They spotted an endangered oceanic manta ray species not seen in many years, and she was promoted to regional lead for unmanned aerial systems. She was also awarded Telstra Woman of the Year (Corporate) in 2015 for her work in drone research.

Ball has a PhD in microbial ecology and is currently the managing director of Elemental Strategy, where she consults to government and private industry on the adoption of technology, such as drones. Ball also works with She Flies, which promotes gender equality in science, technology, engineering, the arts and maths (STEAM) careers.

Drones to the rescue

A love of nature was fostered while watching David Attenborough documentaries as a child. However, Ball’s initial interest in the environment was sparked at the age of five when she saw a television program about the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.

“It’s one of my earliest memories,” she said.

“I remember being quite shocked by it.”

Ball said the current application of drone technology represents the mere tip of the iceberg.

“The idea that we can use drones to get to places and people faster to save lives is really floating my boat,” she said.

“I am excited about how drones are developing outside of the data collection aspect. Some of the humanitarian projects that really excite me involve delivery of blood or drugs or transporting a human organ when needed through a congested city via drones.

“It’s happening in parts of Africa already, and I feel like it should also be happening here in Australia. It’s something we’re looking at, particularly in Queensland. How can we support our remote and regional communities with this kind of technology? Australia is probably the best place in the world to fly a drone.

“We were the first to have commercial drone legislation in 2002, and a lot of other countries look at the Australian model in terms of space regulation. It’s the best place in the world to be a drone scientist.”

Ball also sees drones having an impact on future engineering processes such as data visualisation.

“You can process the data, put it in 3D, stamp the different spectral signatures and walk around inside a virtual reality system without actually having to be on location,” she said.

“The high-resolution nature of the data means that you can look for things in ways that you wouldn’t normally and visit places without having to set foot in them.”

More than selfies

Ball is also inspired by the rise of wearable drones. Gartner’s research shows the personal drone market grew by an estimated 34.3 per cent in the 12 months to February 2017, and Ball believes these pocket-sized machines will be increasingly valuable in gathering vital data.

“Imagine having a little wearable selfie drone and you come across something that’s broken or an accident has happened or there’s a flood level that needs to be checked,” she said.

“Yes, there might be some rather silly uses for wearable drones, but having a geotagged photograph to help somebody in an incident is also something worth thinking about. I always like to take it back to a genuine humanitarian opportunity.”

Dr Catherine Ball will be a speaker at the Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To learn more and to register, click here

This futuristic room really helps bring your data to life

data arena

Engineers are used to looking at schematics and data sets, but what if there was a way to take those data points and visualise them in a completely immersive way?

Imagine being able to do a walk-through of a building before construction even begins. Or create replicas of assets to see where faults occurred and why.

Data arenas, like the one at University of Technology Sydney, let you do just that. It’s a 360 degree, 3D stereoscopic, interactive data visualisation facility that is being used by engineers to visualise and experience data sets like never before.

Experience it for your self and learn more about how engineers are using this space at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference. To learn more and 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

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

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.

Australian Space Agency has liftoff with $41 million budget boost

space agency

Experts say the government’s allocation of $41 million seed funding to establish an Australian Space Agency is a great starting point. But will it lead to sustainable support for local industry?

The 2018 budget included seed funding of $41 million over the next four years to establish the first Australian Space Agency. Of this, $15 million will be dedicated to helping Australian industry partner with international agencies to gain a foothold in the US$345 billion (AU$462 billion) global space market.

According to the Chair of Engineers Australia’s National Committee for Space Engineering, Peter Moar, this announcement has made a lot of people happy.

“From an Australian perspective, this is a huge investment in space,” he said.

But Moar also pointed out that on an international scale, this investment is modest. For example, he said the UK and Canada have annual space budgets in the order of $150 to $250 million.

“I believe one of the roles of the new space agency will be to make the argument to source funding that is commensurate with Canada and the UK as examples,” Moar said.


Benefits to wider industry


According to Minister for Jobs and Innovation Michaelia Cash, the boost to the space industry will flow on to other sectors.

“Space technologies are not just about taking people to the moon, they underpin the long-term competitiveness of many other industries, including communication, agriculture, mining, oil and gas,” Cash said in a media release.

Flavia Tata Nardini, founder and CEO of Adelaide-based space startup Fleet, agreed. She stated that the Australian Space industry will touch the lives of each and every Australian, giving us the chance to play a growing role in this critical industry.

“Whether we realise it or not, space technology is a huge part of our daily lives,” Tata Nardini said.

Money flowing downstream


The government will pump a further $260 million into improving GPS technologies for local businesses and greater access to satellite imagery.

In a media release, Resources Minister Matt Canavan said more precise technology would make Australian businesses more productive, safer and more efficient.

“We rely on satellite and GPS technology for just about every aspect of our lives – from Google Maps on our individual phones, through to air traffic control at the busiest airports,” Canavan said.

The largest allocation ($160.9 million) will go towards improving the accuracy of GPS positioning from 5 m down to 10 cm across Australia and its waters using a satellite-based augmentation system. Another $63 million will be spent on a National Positioning Infrastructure Capability (NPIC) to make GPS accurate up to 3 cm in areas with mobile coverage.

The remainder of the funding will be spent on providing standardised satellite data to better understand environmental changes such as coastal erosion, water quality and crop growth.

According to Moar, this strong investment in the downstream space industry (aka data users) has left the Australian upstream space industry – those who develop and build technology such as satellites – on hold.

Moar emphasised the need for more funding to the upstream space industry to allow Australia to develop local capability to build microsatellites, which are larger and able to provide higher quality imagery and data than cube or nanosatellites.

This will reduce our reliance on data from space tech launched by other nations, Moar said.

“Australia is world’s best at processing data from space, but we are still a long way from being able to develop our own sovereign microsatellites program-based capability that will contribute imagery and data to the rest of the world,” he explained.

Need for ongoing support


The government has also commissioned a review of Australia’s space industry capability in order to develop a strategy to foster its development.

The expert reference group delivered their report on 29 March 2018, but at time of writing it is yet to be publicly released.

According to the Chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia, Michael Davis, it is vitally important the recommendations of the expert reference group be accepted and implemented.

“This will ensure that the new [Space] Agency has the necessary support from both government and industry to achieve the long term goals of industry engagement and economic development by promoting collaboration and investment nationally and internationally,” Davis said.

Moar also emphasised the need for ongoing support. He said that while the $41 million investment in the Australian Space Agency was a great kick-start, he hopes that it leads to sustainable and ongoing funding for the industry.

“Ideally this won’t be a false start and will be the beginning of the resourcing and underpinning of Australia’s space industry,” Moar said.

Flavia Tata Nardini will be part of a discussion about how Australia can keep innovating in the startup sector at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference. To register, click here.