Wheels are turning at international robotics centre

Richard Roberts

Editor in chief

Top image :
The first building at the Australian Automation and Robotics Precinct north of Perth, Western Australia
‘The commercial driver of access to customer is a competitive advantage of the AARP’

For the 40 or so people who trekked half an hour north of Perth for the recent tour of the Australian Automation and Robotics Precinct (AARP), there wasn’t a lot of shelter from threatening rain clouds on 51 hectares of what is still mainly sand, a few bitumen roads and wire fences. Yet it wasn’t hard to share in the vision its architects have for a “world-class automation, robotics and remote operations facility”.

A makeshift office – first ground has since been broken for a big new common-user facility and operations building – did give attendees a comfortable venue to hear from early precinct users and backers.

One of them, the Australia regional manager of internationally recognised robotic infrastructure inspection company, Percepto, said the AARP was already having a positive effect on business.

“We are probably the first customer,” said Chris Lane. Percepto needed a place to show off its drone inspection offering to potential customers when it couldn’t get local aero club and council support to run its demonstrations.

“We’ve been up here probably 20 times; we’ve brought customers in from FMG, Rio Tinto [and other companies].”

Lane said early use of the development site threw up some interesting visitor navigation tests.

“We feel spoilt with the current set-up, but I just know it’s going to get better,” he said.

“This facility is amazing. It’s really helped our business grow in the last two-and-a-bit years.”

Percepto was joined by other start-up and scale-up firms looking to feed the vast WA mining industry’s growing appetite for technology and technology-led services. The state has arguably led the global mining industry’s adoption of surface mobile mining equipment automation over the past decade or so – having earlier been a frontrunner in underground mine remote control and semi-autonomous machine use.

“In the case of so-called Autonomy 1.0, over the past 10 years we’ve demonstrated that Australia is a world-class consumer of autonomy and robotics technology,” AARP industry innovation lead, Alex Bertram, told InvestMETS.com.

“The Australian Automation and Robotics Precinct presents the opportunity for Australia to become a world-class producer of the next generation in-field autonomy and robotics, leveraging our capability born in mining into other priority industries like agriculture and defence.”

Tamryn Barker, AARP national project lead and CEO of precinct operator, Core Innovation Hub, told visitors who included a contingent from global gold company AngloGold Ashanti they were witnessing “the starting point of a significant journey for a project that has a 30-to-40-year vision … to build a world class facility in automation and robotics and remote operations”.

Australia’s federal government last month put out a discussion paper seeking industry feedback on opportunities for, and obstacles to, expansion of the country’s automation and robotics manufacturing sector. A new A$15 billion National Reconstruction Fund could be tapped to accelerate growth opportunities.

“Automation technologies, including robotics, provide an opportunity to add between $170 billion to $600 billion per year to Australia’s gross domestic product by 2030,” federal industry and science minister, Ed Husic said. A statement from his office said: “A thriving robotics ecosystem would support local companies … by creating highly valuable robotics markets and increased onshore manufacturing.

“This provides greater opportunity for collaboration and increases the feasibility of receiving intellectual property protections – such as patents – in hardware-based innovations, relative to those that are software-based.”

The discussion paper suggested Australia lagged well behind the likes of the US, China and Israel in venture capital funding of advanced robotics, and that the relatively small size of the Australian market created obvious commercialisation challenges for many scale-ups.

“A large-scale common user test facility with a first focus on new automation and robotics technologies for the resources sector in WA presents the starkest value proposition of proximity to customer,” Barker told InvestMETS.com.

“A common refrain from the tier-one [miners] is the need to see it to believe it, in terms of engaging with new hardware solutions and products.

“While other sites in Australia perhaps have well integrated and established research capability to testing activity, the commercial driver of access to customer is a competitive advantage of the AARP.

“Engagement with universities and research organisations is building up alongside.

“It makes sense for the AARP to shape use and excel as an industry-led facility in key areas where the WA and Australian market leads – [areas such as] autonomous trucks, field robotics, drivers for interoperability – so that we can become the go-to for global companies in these areas.”

First movers panel at the AARP (left to right): Alex Bertram, Brenton Welford, Ben Brayford, Chris Lane and Jan Haak

DevelopmentWA’s Stuart Nahajski said up to $30 million in public funding had been committed to get the AARP moving. It is believed to be the largest state-funded field robotics facility of its kind in the world, and potentially the only one with a scope encompassing mining, construction, agriculture, defence and perhaps even space technology.

“We’re just land developers,” Nahajski said. “[But] to be able to be part of something that’s so cutting edge in terms of technology advancement, and helping work with local industry, is critical in our vision of what the state’s economy will look like.”

No-one knows for sure how this future economic mix will be shaped, or what contribution the AARP will make.

Bertram, a former manager with BHP who led a ground-breaking mobile equipment maintenance technology project in WA, said: “The one thing we know for certain is that we don’t know all the ways the precinct will be used by innovators in the future.

“So building for change is critical.

“Can you imagine 15 years ago a mining manager agreeing to have 300-tonne-plus [payload] haul trucks ploughing around their site without a driver?

“You would have been laughed out the mine gate.

“The blue-chip miners together with OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] like Caterpillar and Komatsu have done a lot of heavy lifting to prove that autonomous haulage can be done safely, at scale. This has gained the trust not only of the regulators, but also the trust of frontline mining operators.

“The mining industry in WA, and Australia more generally, is one of the most attractive places for autonomous systems given our regulatory environment and the trust miners have for autonomous systems created by these early movers.

“There has been a lot of activity in the third-party autonomy space for mobile equipment both from pure-play heavy equipment Autonomy 2.0 developers like SafeAI, Built Robotics and AIM Intelligent Machines, but also from passenger vehicle and on-road trucking autonomy developers considering an entry into the mining industry.

“This makes a lot of sense [because] until recently Western Australia had more fully driverless hours on the road than any other place on the planet given our early adoption of autonomous truck haulage in mining.

“We’ve had a great opportunity to learn from other global facilities working to accelerate robotics, automation and hard tech, such as autonomous vehicle proving ground Gomentum Station in California, MacLean Engineering’s underground R&D mine in Canada, and the Australian Automotive Research Centre closer to home in Victoria.

“An overarching lesson we’ve learned from these and other facilities is to design with flexibility in mind.

“No matter how much consultation and engagement we do to develop the precinct today, there are innovators out there who will have entirely new needs we can’t even envisage today.”

The AARP open day heard concept and product testing, proving and demonstration activities at a centre such as that at Neerabup, near the satellite city of Joondalup north of Perth and its significant concentration of mining and contracting company head offices, could be vital enablers of early funding and commercialisation for innovative, small firms.

A hub of researchers and developers would also open up new collaboration opportunities, and create tangential innovation momentum of its own.

Percepto’s Chris Lane at one of the AARP’s testing and demonstration areas

“While some of the global OEMs like Caterpillar and Komatsu have impressive proving grounds, those facilities aren’t open to start-ups, scale-ups and other innovators,” Bertram said.

“That’s where the precinct comes in.

“It’s been no real surprise that start-ups and scale-ups working on hard-tech are crying out for facilities to develop prototypes and test their wares on equipment in a near-real world environment that we’ll provide at the precinct.

“I would have loved to have access to facilities like these while developing technology products whilst with BHP.

“The interest from larger players has been more than we expected. Even with access to their own proving grounds and mine sites, global miners and mobile equipment OEMs are excited about the facilities being developed here.”

Impressive US-based newcomer in the global heavy mobile equipment powertrain business, First Mode, is investing heavily in production and testing facilities in Washington state where it is headquartered. The company built the world’s largest hydrogen fuel-cell and electric battery powertrain for an ultra-class mine truck for Anglo American (its major investor) and is now focused on retrofitting more than 400 of Anglo American’s large mine trucks.

VP business development and the company’s initial manager in Australia when it established a presence here three years ago, Jan Haak, said at the AARP event there was potentially “a huge amount of value” in the precinct for companies like First Mode.

“We’re in zero emission power trains and our primary customer doesn’t have any autonomy in any of its sites, so to get onto an Aussie mine site [we] probably need to have an autonomous story and so there are a lot of options for us there,” he said.

“Having a neutral playing ground where you can collaborate with another business that might be offering that, where you can put your tech together and then go and prove it out … there is a huge amount of value there.

“And I think that can be a flywheel when you talk about technology development where you end up driving in here and folks can actually find what they need in terms of partnerships and [partners] are not a zoom call away or in another country.

“There’s value in that proximity.

First Mode’s Jan Haak

“We’ve got a mine that we’ve leased in southern Washington, which is our proving ground, an old coal mine, where we’ll be driving ultra-class haul trucks … Probably a little bit large to be driving around here, so we’re still trying to work out what our engagement can be with this precinct, but certainly having 50 of our engineers within a 20-minute drive [based in Perth] there’s definitely an appeal there for us to find something.

“There’s a whole bunch of regions where we’re really excited about getting more customers and building our road map.

“I’ve got a small team building in Chile. We’re hiring in the US as well. And Australia is kind of the focus for where we think that next stage of growth is going to come.”

The AARP event heard from other early users of the precinct, Solar Energy Robotics and Vilota, and the potential customers in attendance, that the facility could become an important and accessible trust-building medium for innovators and miners, and for start-ups and investors.

“Scaling and testing to scale is very difficult. From our perspective that’s where the real value of this facility is,” said Ben Brayford, CEO of Solar Energy Robotics, which used the event to demonstrate its automated remote solar-power panel cleaning unit. The first generation product is already being used by BHP in WA.

“To do large deployment testing … we need to get buy-in from the operators, which is very difficult not just from a HSC and site access perspective, but also a financial and commercial agreement [perspective].”

Bertram said even as an “insider” in a large mining company, it was difficult to get early-phase and unproven technology onto a mine site for testing in “real-world conditions”.

“The opportunity to accelerate development of innovative technologies through getting their frontline operators and operations teams involved early – without impacting production from their actual mines – is a really exciting prospect.”


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