Saving Outback Joe: UAVs weather the storm to find lost soul

Hello Joe! Seen here with his entourage, Joe was again in need of rescuing this year.

Hello Joe! Seen here with his entourage, Joe had to be rescued again this year. Image: Stefan Hrabar

By Jake Southall

Last week, 16 high school teams from around the world gathered in Calvert, Queensland to put their unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) skills to the test and save Outback Joe at the ninth annual UAV Challenge.

Yet again, our hapless mannequin Outback Joe found himself lost and in desperate need of assistance from the world’s top UAV teams. This year he really got himself into a jam.

Joe got himself lost, cut off by floodwaters and, to make matters worse, he made an “emergency call” to advise that he was suffering an allergic reaction and needed urgent medical assistance. Yet another unfortunate predicament for our inanimate friend.

To save Outback Joe each team was tasked with designing and developing their own UAV (a.k.a flying robot or drone) plus the software and hardware necessary to complete the mission.

The teams then needed to manoeuvre their UAV past two overhead hurdles and deliver an EpiPen payload (to assist with Joe’s allergic reaction, of course) safely, and as close to the stricken mannequin as possible. This could either be deployed remotely by the team’s mission manager (the team member responsible for delivering the EpiPen) or autonomously by systems on board the aircraft such as a camera, a GPS system, or even through the use of ultrasonic sensors. The EpiPen then needed to land safely and intact with a shock measurement under 75G.

On top of all this, there’s a twist! While the pilot flying the aircraft has a visual on Outback Joe, the mission manager was placed in a completely closed off room with no visual of Outback Joe, their teammates, or the aircraft during the flight.

This additional obstacle not only called for the use of quality technology but top-notch teamwork as well.

Storm image

A dark and brooding Queensland sky did not dampen the competitors’ desire to find Outback Joe.

It was a battle hard fought by all of the spirited teams, but in the end it was the local heroes of team Double Duo from the MUROC Flying Club at Mueller College, Queensland who prevailed through the storm and interference to take home the $5,000 grand prize and rescue Outback Joe in the 2015 Airborne Delivery Challenge.

The Double Duo team were one of the only teams to successfully drop and land three packages with a shock reading under 75G. Meeting the shock measurement of 75G and keeping the EpiPen intact proved to be one of the greatest challenges for all the teams.

The contest was extremely tight with only one point dividing the winners Double Duo and runner-up team Par Hexellence, who received a majority of their flying points by impressively, autonomously dropping their EpiPen payload.

Here is Double Duo, Winners of the 2015 Airborne Delivery Challenge, receiving their trophy and certificate -. The prize was awarded by Kathryn Williams (right) of Platinum Sponsor Northrop Grumman. Image: Stefan Hrabar

Winners of the 2015 Airborne Delivery Challenge, Double Duo receiving their trophy and certificate. The prize was awarded by Kathryn Williams (right) of Platinum Sponsor Northrop Grumman. Image: Stefan Hrabar

In a post-event interview on 612 ABC Brisbane radio, Double Duo team captain Michael Phillips discussed attitudes towards drones, how this event showcases the positive aspects and advantages of UAV technology, and how it can be applied to a range of scenarios to help us in the future. We’re sure if Joe could talk and articulate his limbs and digits he would agree and give a big thumbs up.

A big congratulations to all the teams for the great spirit in which they competed and the event sponsors for their continued support.

The UAV Challenge is joint initiative between Queensland University of Technology and Data61 – take a look at our robotics and autonomous systems research page for more information.

The competitors and Joe get together to celebrate the UAV Challenge

The competitors and Joe get together to celebrate the UAV Challenge. Image Stefan Hrabar


Next-gen technologies get down to Robo-business

It doesn't need to be a case of 'us vs them' - robots actually help humans perform better. Image - Franz Steiner

It doesn’t need to be a case of ‘us vs them’ – robots actually help humans perform better. Image – Franz Steiner

By Emily Lehmann 

A world in which robots and humans live side-by-side is no longer just stuff dreamed up in fantastical sci-fi movies (thank you very much James Cameron). ‘Cos if we’re talking about industry, the smart machine era is already here.

Next-gen technologies like self-driving vehicles, remote augmented reality and fully-autonomous robots are now being used to help companies work better, from underground mines to the factory floor.

The latest and greatest in the ‘bots biz was all the talk last week at RoboBusiness 2014, where we took the opportunity to share our vision for the world of intelligent industry.

We want to create an environment where man and machine can work safely and productively side-by-side. To help us achieve this, we’ve developed Guardian technologies: a suite of intelligent, lightweight assistive robots that will increase the productivity and global competitiveness of manufacturing firms.

The robots include Guardian angel, mentor, helper and worker technologies, which all play their own important and unique role in assisting – but not replacing – people in the workplace.

For instance, Guardians can be used to hold or move heavy, awkward items, or be deployed in places not considered safe for humans to perform tasks – all while a person controls them remotely. Check out this video to see how they work:

We have some exciting news around one of our clever Guardian technologies, Zebedee, which is about to be enhanced with new features and improvements.

Zebedee is our leading handheld 3D laser mapping technology and the next generation version will allow manufacturers to create faster and more accurate 3D simulations of their factory production lines.

We’re also about to start a $2 million research and development partnership with UK-based start-up GeoSLAM on the developments to make this happen. You can read more about this on the IT Wire.


Will robots ResQu our rainforests from weeds?

By Carrie Bengston

Want to go for a walk in a rainforest? Join us!

We push our way past vines tangled around tree limbs in the dark, multilayered forest.  As we walk, we’re aware that we’re the only people in this tranquil environment. But it’s a place that’s home to rare and unique birds like the cassowary, a fantastic collection of fungi, and unusual mammals like the tree kangaroo. We step across clear, freshwater creeks (plus or minus leeches) and we listen to leaves rustle in the canopy as a thunderstorm approaches, rumbling in the distance.

Our rainforests are precious and incredibly biodiverse. For example, the rainforests of Far North Queensland, which include the iconic Daintree, occupy less than 0.2 per cent of Australia’s land mass. Yet they support more than ten percent of its flora, 36 per cent of its mammals and 48 per cent of its birds. Rainforests are confined to small patches clustered mostly in inaccessible, mountainous regions along the tropical coast. It’s important we look after these amazing habitats. Unfortunately, a purple-leafed weed, Miconia calvescens, has escaped from its natural habitat overseas via introduction into Aussie gardens and nurseries (which has since been banned) and has made its way into our World Heritage rainforests.

Miconia calvescens

The miconia calvescens, image: Forest & Kim Starr

Purple is a great colour. Don’t get us wrong. But these purple weeds have no place in our rainforests as they compete viciously for space, and squeeze out our native plants. The Miconia menace is taking over the rainforests of Tahiti and other countries. We don’t want that happening here. So we’ve called on an unlikely ally to stop Miconia getting a roothold – robotic technology.

We’ve been participating in a research project, Project ResQu, to trial robot helicopters that could do some of the weed spotting people currently do. Weed spotters work on the ground pushing through dense forest or flying above in manned helicopters, but robots can do the job better and safer. We recently put that to the test.

The UAV in flight.

The UAV in flight.

The robots did well. The robot helicopters, fitted with radar and special cameras and given quirky names like ‘Hotel Golf’, found several Miconia infestations missed by other methods of surveillance. Here’s how we did it.

Will robots save the rainforest? They just might.

About Project ResQu:

Project ResQu is a two-year, $7M project led by the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA) in a collaborative project between the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), CSIRO, Boeing and Insitu Pacific with the support of the Queensland State Government Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts.

Media contact: Emma Pyers, 03 5227 5123, 0409 031 658,

Little flying robots have the ‘Hex’ Factor

If you got lost in the Queensland outback and it was days until you were rescued, the experience would be horrific. Potentially life-threatening. It’s safe to say you would be hesitant to venture into the outback again.

Unless, of course, your name is Joe. Outback Joe.

Year after year, Outback Joe strategically places himself in a pocket of the Queensland outback where he’s particularly hard to find. Outback Joe is the poster boy of the annual UAV Challenge (UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a.k.a. drones, or little flying robots). It’s an international search and rescue competition to save lost bushwalker Outback Joe by using unmanned aircraft to find him, and deliver the poor guy a chocolate bar.

Outback-Joe (2)

Outback Joe, ready to go on the first day of the challenge. It’s his 7th consecutive year of going missing.

The Search and Rescue prize for success is $50,000– over the competition’s seven years, the grand prize has never been won. The Challenge also features an ‘Airborne Delivery’ prize for high school students, with over $10,000 in prizes up for grabs.

This year 11 teams from QLD, SA and ACT high schools entered the Airborne Delivery challenge, battling it out to deliver supplies to Joe. The teams flew their robotic aircraft around the airfield search zone, aiming to drop a package containing a chocolate bar to Joe. First place went to the QLD team Calamvale Raptors, who managed to get the bar within 1.2 metres of Outback Joe.


The Calamvale Raptors team. Their successful ‘chocolate drop’ scored them $5,000.

This year marked a milestone in the competition as the team with the youngest team members, The HexFactor, managed to drop the chocolate bar autonomously.

“This is the first time a team has managed that and it was an exciting moment for the UAV Challenge. Their robot was a hexacopter – a six engined helicopter that they built themselves,” said Head Judge of the UAV Challenge and CSIRO’s Program Leader for Autonomous Systems, Dr Jonathan Roberts. The HexFactor didn’t come out on top, but placed sixth, as would be expected with such a team name. They will be remembered in challenges to come for their autonomous dropping milestone.

The-HexFactor (2)

The HexFactor. The team with the youngest members and the first to autonomously drop a chocolate bar to Outback Joe.

The Search and Rescue Challenge runs over two years, 2013-2014. In this challenge, international team’s UAVs must locate Outback Joe and deliver an emergency package to him. This year 80 teams from 20 different countries passed the first milestone and will continue next September, when the $50,000 prize will be on offer.

While our UAV developments improve over the next year and years to come, spare a thought for Outback Joe. It’s been seven long years that he’s been waiting to be rescued. Last year Joe tweeted, “So is that it? I saw a plane and waved but no water…”

There’s more about the UAV challenge on their website.

Is data the next disruptive technology?

The world would be a scary place without 'disruptive technology'. Image: Flickr/Sammy0716.

The world would be a scary place without ‘disruptive technology’. Image: Flickr/Sammy0716.

By Dr Bronwyn Harch, Chief of CSIRO Computational Informatics. 

It has been almost twenty years since Harvard professor Clayton Christensen first explained his theory on why technologies that initially receive a weak reception from the mainstream can eventually overturn existing market orders and become the norm. He coined this concept as ‘disruptive technology’.

Imagine life without everyday items like digital photography which, despite starting out with low picture quality and poor resolution, now dominates the marketplace and strongly influences how we communicate. Could you do without our Wireless LAN technology, which we initially struggled to patent in the 1990s? This technology now connects billions of people around the world to the Internet and to each other.

Despite these success stories, the challenges of helping our society adapt to and embrace new technologies still remains. Although many researchers passionately believe in the potential of ‘disruptive technologies’ and their benefit to our society, economy and environment, these innovations are often branded as too radical at the time of conception. In many cases, this is because the impact is too difficult to quantify or the anticipated adoptability of the technology has not been well thought through and are hence rejected by the masses.

What are the benefits of digital disruption?

The evolution of disruptive tech over the past 100 years. Click on image for full size or view on Pinterest.

The evolution of disruptive tech over the past 100 years. Click on image for full size or view on Pinterest.

While Australia has received worldwide praise for our strong and resilient economy, largely as a result of our strong commodity markets and increasing demand from the emerging Chinese and Indian super-economies, we are currently faced with the challenge of maintaining a competitive edge in an increasingly complex global market and resource-limited world.

However, a recent report released by the McKinsey Institute predicts the potential economic contribution of new disruptive technologies such as mobile Internet, advanced robotics and 3D printing are expected to return between $14 trillion and $33 trillion globally per year by 2025. By taking the leap of faith to invest in innovation and new technologies, governments and industry have the opportunity to help create a successful digital economy which will drive Australia’s future economic growth and contribute to quality of life and well-being.

Interestingly, the disruptive technologies referenced in the report have a reduced focus on new gadgets and gizmos and an increased emphasis on technologies which require advanced data analytics. A recent Cisco report also predicts that by 2020 there will be 37 billion ‘things’, from our car to our fridge door, connected to the Internet. When you consider this in the context of the rollout of Australia’s national broadband infrastructure and further predictions that the average person will own six different smart devices by 2020, it is easy to see how our increasingly connected lives have led to this explosion in the volume, velocity and variety of data and information now available at our fingertips.

Embracing the era of ‘disruptive data’ to build a more resilient nation

We have responded to this challenge with the formation of our newest research Division – CSIRO Computational Informatics (CCI). This Division will enable us to work at the forefront of global development and remain competitive in key research areas that transform the information and decision making workflows of industry, government and the innovation sectors. It will help us tackle major national challenges, such as declining productivity and the ageing population, through our National Research Flagship program.

In one example, through our Preventative Health Flagship, we are already leading the way in transforming advanced data analytics to pinpoint the genes that could lead to a simple blood screening test for Alzheimer’s disease before it takes hold. Through another project, involving our Digital Productivity and Services Flagship and the Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation (ACBI), we have created a platform which leverages next generation broadband networks to gather personalized health information that enables older Australians to live in their own homes longer, more safely and independently.

But it’s not just the healthcare industry reaping the rewards from this explosion of data. Advanced materials, environmental science, renewable energy, agriculture and services industries have all become increasingly dependent on progress in mathematical sciences and digital technology research. More than ever, the expanding and evolving role of these research capabilities are globally recognised as having broad reach and significant impact.

I would encourage governments and industry alike to proactively take the initiative to address the impact of our future data and information challenges, rather than simply waiting to react to them.

These disruptive technologies may very well be the innovations which drive the economy of tomorrow, enabling us to make a more connected, productive and resilient nation for future generations.

This article was initially published on

Tell us what you think will be the disruptive technologies of tomorrow in our comments section below

May-the-fourth be with our bots


May-the-fourth be with you. Sci-fi fans and geeks around the world are gearing up to celebrate some of the most popular robots ever created tomorrow on International Star Wars Day. For the love of robots, we’re unveiling our latest crop of bots.

In the suburbs of Brisbane (not that far, far away…) our scientists have been busy developing the next generation of robots. Advances in ICT research will see closer collaboration between people and robots in the not so distant future.

Some of our favourites include:



Telepresence Robot – which can move around and offer a virtual video-conferencing experience. From national museums to under the Great Barrier Reef, this technology will eventually allow all Australians with a high speed broadband connection especially those in rural and regional areas to experience and access a range of our national landmarks or treasures, despite the tyranny of distance.





Stealth Robot – move over David Attenborough because this robot aims to track and observe animals in their natural habitat without being detected. Using acoustics to monitor surrounding sounds, the robot uses them to mask its motions so that it can move without being detected and appear as part of the natural habitat.



Starbug – an inexpensive, miniature autonomous underwater vehicle ideal for data collection and ecosystem surveys. It helps to get marine data from areas which humans wouldn’t be able to travel.





Helicopter Robot – an unmanned automatic helicopter designed to remotely inspect dangerous or hard to get to infrastructure such as powerlines, buildings and bridges.




Hexapod Robot – with a similar aesthetic to an insect, this multi-legged robot can be used for monitoring and mapping uneven and unstructured terrain which can be difficult to navigate with wheeled robots. It has 18 servo motors which provide rich sensory feedback to the control software allowing it to detect when the robot interacts with an obstacle and also to assess the type of terrain it is traversing on.


Have a favourite robot? Tweet us @CSIRONews using #maythefourth and let us know which bot you love the best!

Check out our video for more information:

Media: Dan Chamberlain. P: +61 2 9372 4491. M: 0477 708 849. Email:

Taking humans out of hazardous situations

Underground mines can be hazardous places for humans, which is why the industry is investing in robots and automated vehicles to keep workers safe.

We developed a system for load-haul-dump vehicles, commercialised by Caterpillar and now called Minestar-Command-Underground, which takes humans out of the equation and allows the vehicle to react to its environment all by itself.

A load-haul-dump vehicle if you can guess, is an underground mining vehicle that loads, hauls and dumps mineral ore from the mine at an open stope (where the minerals are) to a crusher or truck to be transported to the surface.


The Minestar-Command-Underground system.

A combination of onboard computers, sensors and lasers enables the vehicle to tram to and from load and dump points on autopilot, which accurately steers the machine to prevent it hitting walls.

Unlike other systems, there is no prescribed path for the vehicle to take – the system continuously reacts to the environment and decides for itself how to respond. As it drives, it builds a map of the underground structure and compares it to an abstract mine map, evaluating the information before getting into any trouble.

If you’re thinking that robots are taking our jobs don’t worry, humans aren’t entirely out of the equation. Instead of getting dirty underground, they’re sitting in a comfortable office tracking the vehicle’s progress as digital video is sent via WiFi.

And not only does Minestar-Command-Underground make mining safer, it also increases the efficiency and productivity of the mine.