How do you know if a “drone” – an uncrewed aircraft, surface vessel or submersible – actually works? And how do you develop a set of laws that ensure the safety of both the people around them and the drones themselves? These are now persistent challenges that the Queensland government has set out to address.
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Queensland has significant industry and research strengths in robotic and autonomous systems and the state government has identified this as a key growth sector.
Two of the keys to safe growth in this sector, however, are finding space to test the technology along with creating a regulatory framework that ensures safety and a harmonious coexistence. This is where Queensland’s wide open spaces, on land and at sea, come in.
The existing portfolio of ships’ Collision Avoidance regulations, or COLREGS, needed to be rethought to accommodate Uncrewed Surface and Undersea Vessels (USVs and UUVs).
The Brisbane-based Trusted Autonomous Systems Defence Cooperative Research Centre, or TAS DCRC, found itself leading the world in doing this, according to its CEO, Glen Schafer.
The TAS DCRC, established with support from both the Department of Defence’s Next Generation Technologies Fund and the Queensland government, is designed to help develop next-generation autonomous and robotic technologies and generally enhance the competitiveness of the sector.
Developing new COLREGS and a regulatory environment for autonomous and robotic vessels is a vital step towards bringing them into widespread service and forms part of the TAS DCRC’s Assurance of Autonomy activity, sponsored by the Queensland government. The TAS DCRC’s Robotic & Autonomous Systems Gateway is designed to help Australian researchers and companies navigate the regulatory framework with greater certainty and efficiency, Schafer told The Australian.
The TAS DCRC released the Australian Code of Practice for building and operating autonomous and remotely operated vessels in May, along with the COLREGS Operator Guidance Framework, a world first.
These were showcased and put to the test by nine USVs at the international Maritime Showcase which preceded the TAS DCRC’s Autonomous Vessel Forum last month on the Great Barrier Reef.
This was the first significant commercial demonstration of multiple autonomous vessels in Australia, says Schafer, and highlighted both the rapid growth in technology and the need for a renewed regulatory environment.
The Queensland government has also partnered with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) whose new ReefWorks tropical marine test range, opened in January this year, hosted the Maritime Showcase.
ReefWorks is based near Townsville, close to the Great Barrier Reef.
It is the world’s only marine tropical test facility in the world and so enables testing of marine technologies, uncrewed systems and new sensors in a tropical marine environment.
ReefWorks actually consists of three separate ranges covering several thousand square kilometres: a coastal range adjacent to its Townsville headquarters at Cape Cleveland; one on the Reef itself; and a third on the outer Reef and the deep water at the edge of Australia’s continental shelf.
Also in May, ReefWorks hosted two Remotely Operated Vessels (ROV) participating in the RAN’s EX Autonomous Warrior – these were controlled from the Autonomous Warrior command centre 1800km away in Jervis Bay.
EX Autonomous Warrior is the RAN’s main program for trialling potential robotic and autonomous systems, both on the surface and underwater, along with artificial intelligence capabilities.
Queensland’s long-term investment in autonomous systems research is designed to support the development and testing of new uncrewed systems across all three domains.
The TAS DCRC and ReefWorks exist alongside the Queensland Flight Test Range at Cloncurry and the MILTECS land equipment test facility in South East Queensland, all supported by the Queensland government.
Collectively, they are designed to facilitate the regulatory reforms necessary to ensure Australia and the rest of the world adopt autonomous and robotic systems safely and position Queensland as a power in a global, emerging market.