A little-known fact is that the software used as the basis for Google Maps was created by an Australian mapping-related start-up. It was later bought by the tech giant and has since become an integral part of modern life.
Wi-Fi, likewise, has its roots in Australia.
If these game-changing concepts were partly developed here, why are they not more closely associated with the country?
The simple reason appears to be that these ideas were not financially supported by the Australian industry, but by international investors.
Luke Cole, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer of Australian technology innovation consulting and service-based firm ColeTEK, explains that in countries such as the US innovation is seen as a driving force, and is prioritised as something that can help improve the economy. For Australia, on the other hand, this isn’t entirely the case.
“Google Maps is the classic example – it went overseas because nobody wanted to pay for it,” he says. “I think that a lot of research and development costs associated with delivering a product means that it is seen as expensive and a potential risk.
“People are reluctant to invest, at least in Australia, and we’ve got some great innovation and designers, but they all go overseas,” he adds.
“I think on one side there are people who are scared of research and development because it’s high risk.”
He explains that the general consensus, from what ColeTEK has seen, is that many companies only look at the short-term benefits of innovation.
“They’re not going to see the direct effect now, but further down the track,” he says. “People are just reluctant to take that long, hard road.”
Mr. Cole gives the example of the rear vision mirror for a car. The vital safety component for modern day vehicles didn’t become mandatory until nearly 50 years after its invention – as Mr. Cole says, “great things just take time”.
To put it into a more recent context, Mr. Cole talks about his involvement in driverless car technology back in the early 2000s. In 2016, autonomous car trials and tests have saturated the market, even though the technology was in development nearly 15 years ago.
He asserts that the legal complications can make the introduction of technology a very long process.
The fact is, even at an early stage and with little or no short-term impacts, innovation still requires market and industry support. ColeTEK, for instance, cannot provide technological solutions for the sake of it. “We work with industry and review paths forward for product development. They invest in the research and development and they own it,” he says.
In the road construction sector, Mr. Cole explains that there are many concepts out there that can help improve on-site safety and productivity, but they haven’t been employed in Australia for one reason or another.
He presented on some of these ideas at the Australian Asphalt Pavement Association’s (AAPA) 2016 National Workshop Series, held in late July and early August this year.
Prior to the seminar series, AAPA asked Mr. Cole and his team to present some technological concepts in the road safety space. He highlighted some simple ideas towards improving safety and efficiency for roadwork sites that can be employed right now, or at least are being done elsewhere in the world.
Portable boom gates, for instance, are a basic concept that Australia hasn’t adopted.
“As far as I can see the technology exists right now around the world, but we don’t use it here,” he says.
The benefits of embracing such technology currently available may have positive impacts on performance, accessibility, efficiency and safety in roadwork sites.
Aerial drones also provide an interesting opportunity for a multitude of sectors. Even online retail giant Amazon is developing drones for package delivery. ColeTEK put forward the idea that drones can be used to deploy cones in a road construction environment, essentially removing the human worker from the area and away from live traffic. “We’re confident the challenges faced by Amazon are overcome or manageable for a road construction site,” he says.
Mr. Cole says there are a number of “legal blockers” in the realms of drone technology for commercial use here in Australia, but that is gradually changing.
Robotics also has a potential role to play in improving road workzone safety and productivity through the likes of autonomous technology, but Mr. Cole explains there is still some hesitation in embracing the concept.
“When we talk about a robot, people don’t think of the simple things. They think it’s overly complicated,” he says. During his presentation, Mr. Cole showcased the idea of attaching a dummy to a Segway and using it as a remote-controlled stop/go sign.
This approach not only removes the traffic controller from the danger zone, but it automates the process and has the potential to improve the consistency and flow of traffic.
The simple concept is just the first step in the development of this kind of application on roadsites, but it is driven by technology available now.
“I think these kinds of things will change with time, but people will be slow in adopting it. It just takes time for the communication to get going.”
While future concepts such as driverless vehicles are being trialled and tested, they are not yet ready for the road. As such, Mr. Cole asserts that other technologies that proved effective in other industries and sectors should be considered for the road construction sector.
The agricultural and mining sectors, for example, have already established some key technological practices that have applications for roadwork sites.
Driverless vehicles are already prevalent on mining worksites, but they are at the stage where vehicles without a driver operate in a separate area to humans. Mr. Cole asserts that similar concepts have the potential to work on road worksites in the short-term future.
“They all definitely help the problem of safety, but it also requires a lot of work to make sure the vehicles themselves are safe,” he adds.
Mr. Cole has personally been involved in automating agricultural vehicles and has worked on proof-of-concepts for automated speed, end turns, implement control, vision-based localisation, obstacle avoidance and working within a defined boundary.
He says the Australian agricultural industry is already using GPS-based applications on vehicles that begin to achieve this kind of autonomy. He gives the example of a vehicle fitted with two GPS antennas, which are used to measure height of the implement, and provide further confidence in the vehicle’s orientation.
While they still require a driver avoid obstacles and handle complex navigation, the vehicles are achieving within 2 centimetres of accuracy during passes.
“These semi-autonomous vehicles do not have sensors to see the world around them. They only have a best guess of their currently location, orientation and speed. So they have no way to avoid obstacles such as animals and trees that might be in the path ahead,” he says.
Mr. Cole asserts that the same semi-autonomous control concepts could be applied to rollers on a road construction site. He says the development of the technology would come in stages whereby eventually the driver can be removed completely. The manufacturers will then be able to remove the cab, controls and air conditioning from the vehicle, which will in turn reduce costs and emissions.
Like the road sector, this is the first basic step in reaching autonomy and a safer workzone. The technology has been proved to work and is also available now.
Attack of the drones
Patrick Weeden, Managing Director of Scout Aerial Group, says that innovation becomes stuck when people get caught up in the detail of the technology itself and don’t appreciate the wider extent of its applications.
“They want to know what type of drone it is or what system is being used but that’s irrelevant – it’s really about the deliverables and what can be done,” he says.
Scout Aerial Media and Surveying is part of the Scout Aerial Group and was one of the first drone (or remotely piloted aircraft systems – RPAS), operators to be licensed in Australia.
The company has been servicing the Asia Pacific region and Africa in this capacity since 2011, and has expanded into the design and manufacture of long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drones since.
Drones seem like a new concept, but they’ve been used in different applications for decades.
“The military have been using them for a very long time, since the 1960s at least, but they’ve been used predominantly as a weapon, so there’s was a lot of negative stigma around them,” explains Mr. Weeden.
The technology advanced and became cheaper as an increasing number of applications were found for drones – they were no longer manufactured solely to a military specification.
He asserts that the basic concept has remained the same, but its uses are rapidly expanding in the civil market, particularly following the growth of the hobbyist market.
According to Mr. Weeden, drones have been used in the Australian civil sector for about six years, but in terms of road management and maintenance they’ve only been used in Australia for about three and a half years.
Drones were looked at with scepticism – the technology being seen as something akin to science fiction. However, Mr. Weeden says the uptake of drones in the Australian road industry has been “phenomenal”.
“We’ve seen a growth forecast of five years being made in 12 months,” he adds.
For road construction, RPAS are predominantly used for assessing road alignments, conducting surface assessments and even flood damage. The drones can also be used to pick up on additional issues, such as vegetation encroachment and other maintenance problems when undertaking initial surveying.
For roadwork zones and maintenance projects, this provides some alternative opportunities in both efficiency and safety.
Mr. Weeden says that rather than deploying an entire survey team out across hundreds of kilometres of highways and disrupting traffic, a project lead can remove potential hazards to employees or the public on ground level by using RPAS.
Scout Aerial has been conducting road surveys up to 100 kilometres and producing 2-centimetre pixel resolution imagery.
He says people are far more aware of drone technology and the applications for the road sector, but it has been a slow process until recently. The main challenges, however, are to do with regulation and legislation.
“The issue here in Australia is the regulation, which doesn’t cater for long range capabilities yet. So we mainly do that in Africa and out on the ocean.”
In Australia, an RPAS pilot must have the drone in their line of sight at all times.
Further to that, a drone operator is required to hold a pilot’s licence or RPAS Certificate, and has the option of obtaining an unmanned operations certificate (UOC), which allows a company to operate commercially.
Outside Australia, Scout Aerial works with one of the largest conservation projects in the world, helping to spot illegal fishing vessels through RPAS deployment.
Likewise, the company also uses RPAS to collect data on whale numbers. Mr. Weeden says these applications occur out at sea with drones deployed nearly 90 kilometres off the back of a ship.
Australian regulation limits drone deployment to this extent, but there are provisions for extending the line of sight restriction.
Mr. Weeden says there needs to be more awareness around the applications of the technology and less emphasis on its shortcomings.
“A lot of people look at limitations of regulations and say ‘we can’t do it’, but there’s definitely a way to do it strategically, using multiple teams and other strategies to reach the required deliverables.”
Scout Aerial, for instance, has looked at employing a hand-over system where drone operators can be placed at strategic sites on an extensive road project. Control of the drone can be passed from one operator to another when required.
“When we talk about the regulations, we need to ask: where do we actually use those capabilities and how do we get them approved if required?” he says. “The regulations are there and are quite necessary in terms of safety and progression.”
Mr. Weeden says with the pace at which the industry is adopting drone technology, it is hard to forecast how it will be used in the future, but we will definitely see them on road work sites.
He explains that while drones are being used for a variety of applications in a number of industries, there are still some major challenges ahead that don’t solely involve regulation, particularly in the road construction space.
“One of the biggest hurdles is that there’s not enough data sharing,” he says. “If there were some sort of a group for people to collaborate and share their capabilities, knowledge and new developments, it would really help to advance its use.
“People are closed off in terms of collaboration because of things like competition and intellectual property,” he adds.
He says organisations, such as AAPA, which pushes the innovation message to its members, are starting to help bring these benefits to the industry.
Mr. Weeden says Australia is very advanced in drone technological innovation compared with the rest of the world. The next key phase for RPAS development here is to build on the position it has already established in the marketplace.
“Many people focus on the technology, but we really should be focusing on the data collection, we know the technology exists,” he explains. “In the next five or six years drones will be everywhere.”