All posts by Karen Taylor-Brown

World-leading experts to spearhead $20m of vital space sector R&D investment by SmartSat CRC

In a $20m investment, nine professorial Chairs have been established by SmartSat and its partner universities in artificial intelligence, optical communications and cybersecurity for the development of next generation space technologies to stimulate Australia’s economic growth in space.

Adelaide University, Swinburne University and University of South Australia are the first universities to announce three professorial chairs today.These experts will drive new frontier research in artificial intelligence for satellite systems and new space cyber security technologies.


The trio, Professors Tat-Jun Chin, Christopher Fluke and Jill Slay, will form a Research and Development advisory group to refine the SmartSat research program in priority areas for space systems research and development, and boost the translation of research for industry application.


A further six professorial chairs will boost this first-of-its-kind space R&D initiative, with the Australian National University, Sydney University, and the University of NSW also taking part in this nation-building space capability development along with future appointments from University of South Australia.


SmartSat CEO, Professor Andy Koronios, says the appointment of the Professorial Chairs is a significant step towards growing Australia’s space capabilities and expertise and to strengthening international collaboration.


“We are thrilled to announce the appointment of these outstanding Professorial Chairs who will grow SmartSat’s national knowledge network and extend important existing international connections to our research programs,” Prof Koronios says.
 

“SmartSat is committed to attracting high calibre researchers who have strong track records in leading translational research and proven experience in contributing to Australia’s space research performance. We’re confident these Professorial Chairs will accelerate the progress of our research portfolios in vital areas for our space industry and for national security.”

Professor Anton Middelberg, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research) of the University of Adelaide confirmed that Assoc Prof Tat-Jun Chin is an international leader in AI and machine learning for space applications.
 

“As a global leader, it is very appropriate Tat-Jun Chin brings his extensive knowledge of advanced space system autonomy, intelligence and decision making, on-board machine learning and AI technology to SmartSat CRC,” Professor Middelberg says.

“The mandate of CRCs is to develop sustainable new industries. This requires the right people to fill future jobs and in addition to his global leadership, TJ brings the inspiration and mentorship to build a dedicated CRC activity to deliver next-generation space technologies.”
 

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) at Swinburne, Professor Bronwyn Fox, says the appointment of the professorial chairs will enhance the impactful research of the SmartSat CRC and drive the growth of the emerging Australian space sector.
 

“Astrophysicist Professor Fluke is a highly respected interdisciplinary researcher and his collaborative approach coupled with his advanced visualisation and data expertise will be important for tackling the unique industry problems that the SmartSat CRC will address,” she says.


“Swinburne’s world-leading expertise in astronomical data processing and visualisation, machine learning and AI techniques, and our internationally recognised Industry 4.0 capabilities will help to develop space technologies that will transform our industries and society.”


Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at the University of South Australia, Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington says global demand for secure systems of communication can be met through smart investment in people.
 

“As a proud partner of SmartSat, UniSA is delighted to be working with the CRC to make a significant investment in capability,” she says.
 

“Jill Slay’s expertise is internationally respected and she will make a significant contribution through her knowledge, networks and her leadership in teaching and research.”
 

An industry-focused doctoral program through SmartSat will further build Australia’s space high-tech knowledge. Five PhD scholarships have already been approved and a further six are under consideration with a total goal of more than 70 PHDs over seven years.
 

BIOGRAPHIES: PROFESSIORIAL CHAIRS

Professorial Chair of Sentient Spacecraft, the University of Adelaide’s Assoc Prof Tat-Jun Chin will build Australia’s largest research group dedicated to AI and machine learning for space and actively seek to partner with industry to ensure timely transfer of the research outputs to industry. Recently, Tat-Jun led the team that won the global POSE challenge organised by the European Space Agency and Stanford University last year, beating many international teams. Winning the challenge, which was to use machine learning to estimate the relative position and attitude of a known spacecraft from individual grayscale images, cemented his position as a global leader in his field.

A leading international researcher in data-driven astronomy visualisation from Swinburneas Professorial Chair of Space System Data Fusion and Cognition, Prof Christopher Fluke will further develop capabilities in real-time, data-driven discovery and decision-making, and form collaborations with experts in artificial intelligence and machine learning, skilled performance, human factors research, cognitive assessment, and user-centred design.

University of South Australia’s Prof Jill Slay is the new Professorial Chair of Cyber Security. Prof Slay is currently Theme Leader of SmartSat’s Cyber Security & Resilience program. Her expertise in cyber security and critical infrastructure protection teaching and research will strengthen links to leading international research centres and build capability this critical area.

ABOUT THE SMARTSAT CRC

The SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre brings together over 100 national and international partners who have invested over $190 million, along with $55 million in Federal Government funding under its Cooperative Research Centres Program, in a $245 million research effort over seven years. Working closely with the Australian Space Agency, SmartSat will make a strong contribution to the Australian Government’s goal of tripling the size of the space sector to $12 billion and creating up to 20,000 jobs by 2030. Priority industry sectors for SmartSat include telecommunications, agriculture and natural resources, transport and logistics, mining, and defence and national security.

Science innovation around COVID-19 beyond the virus

Image: UniSA / Flinders

Testing protective equipment

 Testing will take place at Flinders Tonsley site, and at the University of South Australia Future Industries Institute at Mawson Lakes. 

“This both improves our capacity to respond to immediate demands due to COVID-19, and also provides new opportunities that will support the long-term viability of manufacturing businesses in South Australia,” says Professor Emily Hilder, who is Director of the UniSA Future Industries Institute. 

Adelaide packing company Detmold is manufacturing more than 20 million respirator and surgical masks per month for local and national markets. “In order to protect our vital hospital staff, face masks have to meet rigorous standards – they need to filter out bacteria, resist blood, withstand wear and tear, and yet still be easy to breathe through,” says Professor Karen Reynolds, Dean (Research) College of Science and Engineering, Flinders University.

University of South Australia’s A/Prof Colin Hall and Senior Research Fellow
Dr Christiane Schulz.

Surveying mental health

Professor Susan Rossell from Swinburne University is conducting a monthly survey of the mental health and wellbeing of Australians in the face of COVID-19, which will tell researchers what is causing most stress – finances, family or friends.

Dr Stan Steindl from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology is co-lead on an international consortium looking at the psychological effects of COVID-19 in 18 countries, and how compassion can help reduce pandemic-related stress.

Responding in regional areas 

Charles Sturt University established an internal fund for research projects that could achieve fast outcomes and improve our understanding of the impacts of COVID-19 on regional communities. Funded projects include research into the effects of chronic exercise on mitigating viral infection, and how culturally and linguistically diverse people in rural areas were impacted by racism related to COVID-19. Research led by Prof Jade Forwood investigating the structural binding relationships of virus proteins to novel therapeutic targets was also fast-tracked.

Making masks 

The University of Western Australia teamed up with the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research to manufacture 10,000 face shields for WA health workers. At the Australian National University, quantum physicist Dr John Debs mobilised the university’s Maker Space community to produce 17,000 plastic face shields, along with utility masks for general practitioners and other medical workers in the ACT and NSW.

Helping home education thrive 

The Science Faculty at the University of Western Australia created a website with online learning resources to support teachers, students and parents. Griffith University teaching staff set up weekly STEM challenges for students in Years 5–12 designed to be completed with materials and resources students had at home.

Protecting us in the future

Macquarie University’s Honorary Associate Professor Denis Bauer and colleagues at CSIRO used complex algorithms to compare genomes of more than 180 separate genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from around the world. The data shows how the virus is mutating, and how different the individual isolates are from each other. The team has identified the most common virus strains, and therefore the best candidates to choose for testing vaccines. The team is now working with international collaborators to capture clinical data in a secure interoperable way to monitor emerging strains that might cause more severe disease.

From sewage tracing to the DNA Zoo: Research responses to COVID-19

Image: UWA’s Associate Professor Parwinder Kaur.

“We have something that turned out to be my worst nightmare,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease specialist in the US, told biotechnology executives at a virtual conference in June. “In a period of four months, it has devastated the world.”

At the time, it was six months after the world learned that a new virus — SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) — had jumped to humans in Wuhan, China. More than 7.2 million people were known to be infected globally, and 411,000 had died of the disease it causes, COVID-19.

The numbers have since climbed astronomically, and it could easily have been a calamity for Australia. When the first four travellers from China tested positive on Jan 25 – one in Victoria and three in NSW – Australia ranked 4th in the world, just behind the US. Yet, when Fauci spoke, Australia ranked 67th with 7267 infected and more than 100 deaths, while the US led the world in number of infections and deaths. 

Australia’s position remains fragile and it could not have been achieved without an army of highly skilled university researchers, who dropped everything to join the battle.

One such lightning collaboration was a proof-of-concept study to track COVID-19 in raw sewage as a potential early warning system.

In late March, University of Queensland’s (UQ) environmental health scientists Professors Kevin Thomas and Jochen Mueller approached CSIRO Land and Water’s environmental microbiology group to help accelerate the detection of specific gene fragments from complex sewage samples.

Thomas says the open collaboration of the international scientific response to COVID-19 was immediate and immense. “It is a sign that academic collaboration has changed for the better.”

“It’s been just remarkable,” agrees Dr Paul Bertsch, Science Director at CSIRO Land & Water in Brisbane.

“I’ve never seen collaboration at this scale and at this speed. Most collaborations become strong over time, but building relationships is usually done over many years, not weeks.”

Within three weeks, the team — expanded to include Japan’s Hokkaido University, the University of Notre Dame in the US and CSIRO Agriculture & Food — confirmed SARS-CoV-2 could be detected in sewage, finding virus gene fragments in untreated sewage from two wastewater treatment plants in Brisbane that service 600,000 residents.

Changing lanes

The UQ researchers had been prompted by a Chinese study, published in Nature Medicine in late March, that found SARS-CoV-2 in rectal swabs of asymptomatic children who had nevertheless tested negative to nasal swabs.

Thomas’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences group was already monitoring wastewater to determine consumption and exposure to illicit drugs and pharmaceuticals for the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission. Could they adapt their wastewater epidemiology to find SARS-CoV-2, they wondered?

They could, and the trial has shown that wastewater can be used to estimate how broadly the virus is circulating in the community, especially in those showing mild or no symptoms. “This is a major development that enables surveillance of the spread of the virus through Australian communities,” says Thomas.

Appearing in the journal Science of the Total Environment, it was the first published study of coronavirus surveillance in wastewater in the world. “UQ and that group at CSIRO had never worked together, yet three weeks later they had a peer-reviewed paper,” says Bertsch. “That level of collaboration — not only across Australia, but globally — is really quite amazing around this crisis.”

Protecting healthcare workers

Just as the Brisbane collaboration began, Nigel Curtis, a Professor of Paediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Melbourne, began a trial of 2,500 healthcare workers to evaluate the immune-boosting properties of an old tuberculosis vaccine, BCG, to protect against COVID-19 or reduce its
severity.

Within a month, he landed a $10 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to expand his group’s randomised controlled study to 10,000 healthcare staff across Australia, Spain and The Netherlands.

The trial builds on previous research showing that the century-old Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine – still given to over 130 million babies worldwide each year – can boost immunity to a virus similar to SARS-CoV-2. The study will “help our researchers show whether BCG vaccination improves ‘innate’ immunity in frontline healthcare workers to buy crucial time to develop and importantly, validate, a specific anti-COVID-19 vaccine,” Curtis says.

The Australian Government, too, has turned to the university sector, creating the Rapid Research Information Forum (RRIF) to provide ministers with an overview of the best scientific thinking on any topic. Led by Australia’s Chief Scientist and facilitated by the academies, it swiftly assembles research experts at universities and research institutes across Australia and New Zealand and delivers a 1,500-word brief within 10 days.

Its partners now hope the RRIF will become a permanent mechanism to provide scientific input into government.

Heeding the call

In January, just as the news of human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 broke, genome scientist Associate Professor Parwinder Kaur, from the University of Western Australia (UWA), was in Houston, Texas at the founding lab of the DNA Zoo. Kaur is the lead Australian partner of DNA Zoo, a global initiative with more than 60 collaborators in eight countries working to create reference genomes for threatened species across the tree of life.

Genomes are assembled using high-resolution 3D models showing the spatial distribution of DNA sequences relative to one another, a technology known as Hi-C that was originally designed to study how genomes fold inside the nucleus.

Importantly, it also allows a very detailed analysis of gene regulation.

As transmission of the virus accelerated, the DNA Zoo team decided to pivot into the effort, decoding the reservoir species of bats and pangolins.

“The team also repurposed the workflow to assemble the whole genome of SARS-CoV-2, as the need of the hour was to understand the epidemiology of the disease,” she adds.

Such a high-resolution model of the genome would not only help understand the virus, but track its mutations. While the Houston lab, led by Dr Aviva Presser Aiden, worked up virus samples, Kaur — now back in Perth — beta tested the data analysis scripts through the nearby Pawsey Supercomputing Centre to build reference genomes.

Cheap, rapid, effective testing 

With that data, they were able to develop a diagnostic test,  which not only gives a yes/no answer to a patient swab saliva sample, but also the entire virus genome sequence.

In a bioRxiv pre-print paper, Kaur and her DNA Zoo colleagues report that the test accurately detects SARS-CoV-2 in 100 per cent of known samples, and is more than 95 per cent accurate in even small concentrations of virus (84 genome equivalents per millilitre) — better than the limits of detection for almost all diagnostic methods so far approved.

“It is highly sensitive — it detects very low amounts of the virus. And it’s really fast and very cheap,” she says. Using this method, one technician can process 192 samples at a cost of US$30 per patient, including data analysis time.

The partners have applied for emergency use authorisation with both the US Food and Drug Administration and Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration. But they’re not done. “We’ve started using this to gather as much epidemiological information as we can, which can be shared with researchers on the front foot of vaccine development,” says Kaur.

“Right now, nobody’s waiting, it’s just an amazing pace. I mean, it’s in none of our KPIs to do this work, and I never thought I would work on a virus genome. But it’s the virus pushing us to do it really, really fast.”

— Wilson da Silva @WilsondaSilva

The vaccine vanguard

Image: Dr Daniel Watterson, Mrs Christina Henderson, Professor Paul Young, Associate Professor Keith Chappell, Professor Trent Munro.

Australia’s long history of vaccine development earned us a position at the frontline in the race against COVID-19.

The expertise embedded in Australian university science ranges from complex modelling to trailblazing in genomic mapping, protein chemistry, bioinformatics and epidemiology. So when COVID-19 spread across the globe, Australian scientists were equipped to better understand not just this virus, but also how we can protect ourselves in the future. 

By June 2, 2020, the World Health Organization had identified 10 COVID-19 vaccines in clinical evaluation and a further 123 vaccines in pre-clinical evaluation. 

At the request of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), University of Queensland (UQ) scientists were some of the early responders, developing a rapid-response vaccine pipeline to reduce vaccine development from multiple years to a number of weeks. 

Their vaccine shortcut uses ‘molecular clamp’ technology to trigger an immune response, research patented by UniQuest, UQ’s technology transfer company, and quickly pivoted to target COVID-19. The team is supported by University of Melbourne scientists who are running independent tests on the impact of the antibody response on the virus in cell culture. 

UQ’s molecular clamp

UQ has since partnered with global biotech company CSL to manufacture the vaccine, with Phase 1 safety trials being conducted in Brisbane from early July. If successful, vaccine production will be scaled up to an extraordinary 100 million doses towards the end of 2021.

“The partnership will enable the rapid development of the vaccine candidate through clinical trials, and by investing in large-scale manufacturing capacity now, we can reduce the time needed to deliver millions of doses of the UQ vaccine to those who need them most if it proves to be safe and effective,” says CEPI CEO Richard Hatchett.

A deep repository of knowledge

A deep repository of knowledge Australia’s long history in vaccine research and the size of our research workforce are key parts of our arsenal, says microbiologist Professor James Paton, Director of the Research Centre for Infectious Diseases at University of Adelaide, and whose grandfather, Sir John Burton Cleland, was Principal Bacteriologist at the NSW Department of Health during the 1918–19 pandemic. 

“Think of the human papillomavirus vaccine, Gardasil, for example, and medical technology such as Cochlear and Resmed — that’s a record of which Australian science can be justifiably proud,” he says.

With colleague Dr Mohammed Alsharifi, Paton is working on a new combination vaccine designed to simultaneously combat two deadly respiratory diseases — influenza, caused by a virus, and pneumococcal disease, caused by a common bacterium. The combination formula would overcome the limitations of the existing vaccines used for both, and the pair hopes to be conducting human trials of the pneumococcal component within 12 months.

Paton points out that in both seasonal and pandemic respiratory disease contexts, people become far more vulnerable to additional infections. Pneumococcus often ‘hangs around’ in our nose and throat without a problem – when our immune system is hammered by another illness, it can cause life-threatening bacterial pneumonia and sepsis. 

Paton says the advantage of doing science research in the university sector is the cross-fertilisation of ideas. “We have access to a wider range of facilities and a critical mass of people with expertise in different areas from our own,” he says. 

Shotgun approach leads to rapid research outcome 

As the vaccine race kicked off, university scientists were already working to understand the evolution of the new threat. University of Sydney’s Professor Edward Holmes is an evolutionary biologist and virologist who co-authored one of the earliest descriptions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, published in February 2020 in Nature and The Lancet.

His colleague, Dr John-Sebastian Eden, says their team researches “all aspects of viral evolution in animals and humans, even in insects”. They scan pathology samples from animals using total RNA sequencing to reveal the full spectrum of microbes present, a technique called Metatranscriptomic Shotgun Sequencing. 

“Sequencing doesn’t just target specific microbes; we can recover any virus or organism that’s present in the sample,” says Eden. “These powerful sequencing techniques were done on lung wash samples from some of the earliest COVID-19 patients in China.” 

In this shotgun approach, all RNA sequences present in a sample are extracted and the fragments are reconstructed using powerful computers. The team then identifies the microbial life present by comparing these fragments to huge databases of known RNA, working with scientists at universities around the world to share their research via global genetic databases. 

These hold billions of records of genetic sequences for organisms ranging from humans to bacteria, archaea and viruses – including more than 35,000 viral genomic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The unique facilities let scientists at Australian universities rapidly process data and keep tabs on the virus through molecular epidemiology, where samples of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA from different patients are analysed and compared with others. That lets us track the virus’ spread in the community, and work out the country of origin for various instances of COVID-19 in Australia. 

“These techniques are powerful,” says Eden. “We are also developing rapid turnaround for RNA sequencing so if an outbreak of a new disease of any kind happens, sometimes within hours, we can identify a novel organism.”

Modelling the spread of the virus

Mathematical biologist Professor James ​McCaw, from the University of Melbourne, is working with colleagues at the Doherty Institute on the modelling that guided the national cabinet to a solid public health response.

“We’ve been working for 15 years in this space to be ready for an event like this,” he says. “We provided advice to the government in mid-January, preparing scenarios of what could eventuate based on our epidemiological understanding at the time, before there were more than one or two cases in Australia and only a few hundred recorded in China.”

This modelling prompted early and decisive government action. “We’ve been prepared and the government took it seriously from the start,” he says.

Western Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Peter Klinken, says Australia was in a strong position to respond through a robust public health system and an excellent scientific community.

“Our public health experts have been really astute, and our politicians are listening to them,” he says. Klinken says that crisis situations can be plagued by groupthink — where no-one queries ideas — but this has been avoided by using innovative panels with a cross-section of expertise.

“They have reached out to the university sector and brought in epidemiologists, alongside experts in the mathematical modelling of diseases, engineers and virologists, all advising on how to plan – and that’s been invaluable.”

McCaw says that unmanaged, the virus has a reproduction number (R0) around 2.5. Unchecked, it would have killed tens of thousands of Australians. “Through our public health response and the commitment of the Australian community, we avoided that disaster situation.” 

– Fran Molloy @franmolloy

University science mobilises in a pandemic: Opinion

Image: Professor John Shine AC FRS PresAA

Science research at universities has a proud history in helping us to understand, protect against, and prevent many infectious diseases, from influenza to the viruses that cause some cancers. But university science goes far beyond medical innovation. In the 2020 pandemic, university science has quickly mobilised to model, trace and track the virus behind COVID-19. It has also focused research on cheaply manufacturing safety equipment, better directing our response to the pandemic through social distancing, improving our mental health research, assisting in the schools’ education transformation and rapidly sharing data.

Across the country, university science was able to draw on its teams and collaborations in the rush for a vaccine, with some strong candidates under development in Australia. Moreover, working with organisations such as the Australian Synchrotron, national supercomputing facilities, Australian industry and the CSIRO, potential vaccines are being scaled up and tested at a great level of detail.

Knowledge-sharing capacity

As a repository of knowledge, networks, infrastructure and smart, agile people, university science has the capacity to address global challenges.

University scientists work in a knowledge-sharing capacity that relies on scientists’ deep networks of collaboration and scholarship. Scientists share their data and knowledge nationally with each other and with industry, and also with international researchers, stakeholders in state and federal governments, schools and the wider public.

People trained by university science and working within the research sector are the people whose expertise will deliver on this global challenge because this is what they do. It’s the capacity to innovate in our university science that will bring us through this crisis. 

Professor John Shine AC FRS PresAA

President, Australian Academy of Science

Garvan Institute of Medical Research

Opinion: Universities must build better funding models

Universities can avert a funding crisis and save many research projects from closing by adopting more sustainable and profitable alternative revenue structures, two leading wealth managers say.

Executive Chairman Atlas Advisors Australia, Guy Hedley said universities should be among ailing industries given priority under a revamp of complying investment criteria under the Business Innovation and Investment Program.

A review of the BIIP by the Australian Government is expected to be finalised in the next few months.

“Universities, jobs and research projects are unnecessarily being cut because of a failure to investigate alternative income sources,” Mr Hedley said.

“Wealthy migrant investors could provide high levels of funding on a longer term to support the commercialisation of university research projects.”

Mr Hedley said a slowdown in Investor Visa (IV) and Significant Investor Visa (SIV) applications and processing times was frustrating the supply of venture capital that supports the commercialisation of university research.

“Applications under the BIIP should be immediately reopened to provide millions of dollars in available funds to support university projects and startups throughout the post-COVID-10 recession,” he said.

Stoic Venture Capital Managing Partner – Investments Geoff Waring said many internationally competitive Australian companies such as Resmed and Cochlear first emerged from university research.

“Australian universities are leading the way with innovations in areas including medicine, science, biotechnology and agritech,” Dr Waring said

“These companies have a generational impact on the Australian economy, innovation and jobs.”

Dr Waring said the slowdown in BIIP applications was contributing to a shortage of early stage venture capital that was restricting universities and their start-ups from bringing inventions to life.


Thinking beyond the barriers to innovation

Two CRCs give their insights into wrapping up research programs with optimal impact. Gregor Ferguson reports. 

Consider commercialisation right from the start and set up your research program quickly. That’s the advice from Dr Sanjay Mazumdar, former CEO of the Data to Decisions (D2D) CRC that shut down in June 2019, after five years. 

The information technology sector evolves rapidly, so Mazumdar focused the D2D CRC on developing flexible intellectual property (IP) commercialisation models that delivered timely results and provided for funding and ongoing development beyond its five-year life. 

“We needed to hit the ground running,” says Mazumdar, who’d previously worked for BAE Systems Australia and Motorola, and has now moved to KPMG. The D2D CRC considered different commercialisation pathways before establishing two ‘spin-in’ companies. These were wholly owned subsidiaries of the CRC, which incubated them and their IP and then spun them out shortly before the CRC closed. 

CRC participants are now part of a trust with equity in these spin-offs; this is one of the takeaways in the D2D Lessons Learned Review Report. This approach made transitioning

IP from the lab to the market much easier, says Mazumdar, and created viable businesses able to develop the CRC’s IP.

Challenges of research-heavy collaboration

Mazumdar’s experience differs from that of David Ball, CEO of the Space Environment Research CRC (SERC), that will shut down later this year after passing a couple of delayed milestones which have extended its five-year funding term.`

Ball understood SERC’s five-year CRC funding agreement might be problematic for a research-intensive CRC extending the leading edge of Space Situational Awareness (SSA).

“We’re not making widgets here,” he says. “It is research and things sometimes take longer to achieve.” SERC’s commercialisation was slowed by several unforeseen problems: damage caused by a US supplier delayed delivery of a crucial mirror assembly by more than four months; a satellite carrying a hosted payload for SERC failed; and then a second payload integrator delayed the launch from New Zealand of a replacement SERC satellite payload until this year. 

SERC’s space experiments using that payload will deliver the final package of IP. The end of those experiments will trigger its final shutdown. Ball says he doesn’t want to leave ‘shelfware’ behind when SERC closes, and there’s a good chance the industry and research participants in the CRC, which include EOS Space Systems and Lockheed Martin, plus universities, will snap up the IP. 

SERC is making a major contribution to SSA technology, especially in adaptive optics, software and high-power lasers. This is a cornerstone of the new Australian Space Agency’s technology agenda. Defence has ongoing projects in these areas, as do some of SERC’s industry participants, but Ball won’t be drawn on their plans to commercialise the CRC’s IP. 

“Our partners are very keen to continue their involvement from an academic and industry point of view,” he says.

Importantly, both D2D CRC and SERC identified and solved some complex, enduring problems. From the outset, they tapped into markets that value their IP sufficiently to create new income streams to continue developing and exploiting their IP after the CRCs shut down. SERC’s five-year funding agreement could have benefitted from an allowance for the technical delays inherent in space research, acknowledges Ball. This would have sped up the development of proven IP and made commercialisation planning smoother. Future CRCs can benefit from looking at the successes and setbacks of both organisations. 

 d2dcrc.com.au

 serc.org.au

Saving Australia’s oyster industry

The Future Oysters CRC-P is a case study for the success of short-term industry research collaboration, reports Matthew Brace.

Tasmania is home to some of the world’s cleanest seas and most sought-after seafood. But when a highly contagious virus hit in 2016, killing up to 95 per cent of Pacific oysters on infected farms, it looked like the end for the state’s $30 million industry.

Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS) also caused havoc in South Australia because Tasmanian hatcheries were supplying the state with approximately 90 per cent of the oyster spat — the very young oysters used to establish and develop oyster beds.

In the search for a solution, scientists and industry leaders stepped up a selective breeding program that had been underway since the late-1990s.

It was supported by the $3 million Future Oysters Cooperative Research Centre Project (CRC-P), established to tackle the deadly outbreak and help save the industry.

The breeding program was already proven by scoping research and had spent several years successfully improving the growth rate, meat condition and general robustness of Pacific oysters. When POMS hit New South Wales in 2011, the Tasmanian industry began using the program to breed a POMS-resistant oyster as a proactive measure. Growers also invested more in the program to help defend against the virus.

Matt Cunningham, a principal investigator under the CRC-P and general manager of R&D organisation Australian Seafood Industries (ASI), says project funding enabled the team to accelerate their work.

Remarkably, by the end of summer 2019, Pacific oyster stocks in Tasmania had almost fully recovered. “Some growers are suggesting they might even have an above-average production this year,” says Cunningham. “Other places around the world hit by POMS were much slower to recover, so the breeding program has clearly been pivotal.”

Dr Christine Crawford is a principal investigator for the Future Oysters CRC-P, and a senior research fellow in the Fisheries and Aquaculture Centre in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania.

She says that despite the devastation caused by POMS, there were some silver linings.

“Because the farmers were devastated and lost so much stock, they have had to re-evaluate their farming conditions quite dramatically. As a result, they have become much more efficient. The POMS virus only becomes active when water temperatures are consistently above 18°C. So growers now monitor water temperatures more closely and harvest more oysters before the water warms up too much.”

Crawford adds that as great as the recovery has been, the next two years will be crucial in determining whether this success is going to continue.

 oystersaustralia.org

A new legume brings hope to drought-affected cattle industry

A lifeline has arrived for northern Australia’s cattle farmers, who have endured almost a decade of drought, in the form of a new kind of legume.

Paddock trials by research teams of high-protein Progardes® Desmanthus have shown it to be an exceptionally drought-tolerant and persistent legume for semi-arid grazing regions. Among many benefits, the legume helps cattle reach target weights faster, reduces enteric methane in ruminants, extends the length of a pasture season, reduces the need for feed supplementation and improves soil health.

It is adapted to a range of clay soils so it’s more likely the legume will establish itself, even in difficult soils where other legumes have previously failed.

Brisbane-based Agrimix Pastures was awarded $2.83 million in CRC-P funding with its partners (chiefly James Cook University, CSIRO, Meat & Livestock Australia and the Queensland Government’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries) to commercialise Progardes® Desmanthus as part of a $10 million project.

The team is working with five cattle producers whose combined land covers approximately nine million hectares.

Project manager Nick Kempe says the legume will result in significant economic, environmental and social benefits.

“Trials have shown that Progardes® Desmanthus can achieve about 40kg of extra weight gain per head per year,” he says.

“It also reduces enteric methane emissions and generates soil nitrogen, which increases total forage biomass, including grasses. This keeps pastures healthier for longer and improves paddock productivity.”  — Matthew Brace

 progardes.com.au

Inexpensive materials for high-performance batteries of the future

A new study has shown for the first time how inexpensive materials can be used in high-performance batteries of the future.

The study, published last week in ACS Energy Letters, is a collaboration between Monash University, the India Institute of Technology Bombay-Monash Research Academy, and Deakin University.

Scientists and engineers have been focused on finding a more sustainable way of using lithium batteries which rely on scarce resources and is challenging to produce on a large scale at affordable prices.

But now scientists have shown that using a ‘carbon cloth collector’ can improve the sulfur utilisation of batteries, which would make them more efficient.

“Batteries of the future are necessary because in various significant market areas they form a vital part of the transition away from fossil fuels,” said study author Professor Douglas MacFarlane, from the Monash University School of Chemistry.

“Integration of renewables into the grid is hampered by the variability of the supply, and battery storage either in the home or at the wind/solar farm is seen as a necessary, but currently very expensive, component of the system” he said.

The research was conducted through a highly innovative PhD program in the IITB-Monash Research Academy – a partnership between the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB), India and Monash University.

Deakin University, with expertise  in the  prototyping and scale up of the batteries, also played a key role in the study. The research is part of a longer term collaboration between Monash, Deakin and the ITTB funded through an Australia India Strategic Research Fund (AISRF) project aimed at developing affordable high-performance batteries.

“The most immediate application of these batteries in India could be in local transportation applications, for example in the Auto-Rickshaws that are extensively used in Asia as well as smaller electric vehicles (EVs),” said study author, Professor Maria Forsyth, from Deakin University.

“In Australia we could see such batteries powering EVs, and they could also be used for home battery storage,” she said.

The study describes outstanding performance for a high-energy density room-temperature sodium-sulfur (RT Na-S) battery, with the discovery that a simple chemical activation of a carbon cloth current collector (which researchers fill with a sulfur-based liquid electrolyte ) could allow  a Na-S battery to operate at near its theoretical voltage and deliver an energy density of just under 1kWh/kg of Sulfur.

The appeal of the Na-S battery is that the raw materials, sodium salts and sulfur are very commonplace and inexpensive.

The battery operates at room temperature and can be charged and discharged at reasonable rates, for example 1/2 an hour charging and discharging.

The carbon cloth is the key to the development. By activating it in a simple process it becomes a catalytic agent in the discharge process of the sulfur electrode, leading to a higher overall voltage and extended cycle life.

Celebrating 30 years of CRC success

The Hon Karen Andrews, MP, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology reflects on 30 years of CRC success.

It’s 30 years since the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program was established. During this period, it has boosted productivity, grown the economy and created jobs.

It provides government grant funding to support industry-led collaborative research partnerships, with matching contributions from partners.

Since the program’s inception in 1990, the Government has committed more than

$4.8 billion to support the establishment of 225 CRCs, while industry and research partners have committed $14.9 billion in cash and in-kind contributions.

Since CRC Projects (CRC-P) was added to the program in 2015, 111 CRC-Ps have been established, providing opportunities for small and medium enterprises to participate in collaborative research.

The Australian Government has committed $755 million to the CRC Program in the forward estimates to 2022–2023.

The CRC Program also helps create a highly skilled workforce with research capability in industry. CRCs have supported more than 4000 PhD students since the program commenced, with a majority having found employment with industry or research end-users following graduation.

CRC success stories include:

  • The Sheep CRC, which launched in 2001 and operated until 2019. During this period the gross value of the Australian sheep industry increased from $5.6 billion to more than $8.5 billion.  
  • The Deep Exploration Technologies CRC developed the RoXplorer® coiled tubing drill rig, which is regarded as the biggest breakthrough in drilling technology in the past 50 years.
  • The HEARing CRC, which developed an innovation underpinning Cochlear medical devices that has improved the quality of life for millions of people.

Continuing CRC work includes: 

  • The Tasmania-based Blue Economy CRC, established in 2019, which is projected to increase the value of seafood production to $5 billion by 2050. It will allow for 50 postdoctoral fellowships and 50 PhDs to train scientists and engineers for the aquaculture, offshore renewable energy and engineering sectors.
  • The Future Battery Industries CRC, which is developing opportunities for specialist battery manufacturing in Australia and funding 40 PhD students to undertake an education and training program to build a workforce to support Australia’s future battery industries.

The CRC Program is a proven model for industry and research collaboration and has my strong, ongoing support. I wish all involved every success in the future.

– The Hon Karen Andrews, MP, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology

Fast facts:

  • 5: The number of Excellence in Innovation awards presented in 2019 for outstanding examples of the transfer of CRC research results, knowledge and technologies that have been developed for communities, companies and government agencies.
  • 30 years: The CRC Program’s age. It was officially launched by the Australian Government in 1990. In three decades, 225 CRCs have been funded, fostering research in fields addressing major challenges facing Australia.
  • $1.1 billion: The money funded by the Australian Government since 2013 to CRC Project grants dedicated to fostering new technologies.
  • 4: New CRCs started in June 2019: Blue Economy CRC, SmartSat CRC, Future Food Systems CRC and Future Battery Industries CRC.
  • 56: The number of organisations working in collaboration with the Autism CRC at the end of the 2018-2019 reporting period.
  • $600 million:  The independently valued benefit of research and adoption activities, over 15 years, conducted by the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities in 2019, at a benefit-cost ratio of 1:6.

Satellites and AI to help fight bushfires

The SmartSat CRC is already proving its worth.

Australia’s $245 million SmartSat CRC was launched in September 2019 and immediately kickstarted a practical test of its potential contribution to communities. Australia’s devastating 2019-2020 bushfires focused attention on every aspect of bushfire management: prediction, warning, response and recovery. The SmartSat CRC is concentrating on one particular problem area.

A persistent challenge for firefighters is tracking a fire front in real time, says University of Queensland researcher, Professor Stuart Phinn, one of SmartSat CRC’s program leaders. 

To direct firefighting resources, emergency managers need high spatial resolution images that can be updated “every couple of minutes”, says Phinn, who is program director for the SmartSat CRC’s Next Generation Earth Observation Data Services program. “You can do that from drones, but you can’t fly drones or aircraft through smoke and cloud all of the time.”

The answer may lie in space-based sensors. The SmartSat CRC could integrate new modes and AI-enhanced algorithms on existing and future Earth observation satellites to provide an increasingly accurate, real-time picture of a bushfire.

Seeing through smoke 

This is a tough ask; visual sensors or thermal imagers operating at the wavelengths used specifically to look for fires are attenuated slightly by smoke and heavily by cloud. Synthetic Aperture Radar is an advanced technology that captures images at 500 times the resolution of everyday radar. It sees through cloud but isn’t sensitive to temperature, although it might detect differences between burnt and unburnt trees to help map burning areas.

AI-enabled fusion of the two types of sensor data could deliver a coherent picture if the right algorithms and operating system are in place aboard a satellite.

One of the SmartSat CRC’s primary focus areas is to map bushfires and other natural disasters. Phinn’s research integrates the CRC’s three main programs — Communications, Intelligent Platforms and Earth Observation.

“In some cases, we need to upload information from the ground to augment or update the models and algorithms in the satellite. That’s Program 1,” he says.

“Essentially, you’d have a capable storage and processing facility aboard the platform itself: that’s Program 2. And then Program 3 is using the right data and the right processing approach, which is the Earth observation and data analytics side of it, combined with intelligent platforms and algorithms to give us intelligent products and services,” he says. 

Funding the dream

These are early days for the CRC and a number of projects and proposals along these lines will emerge as the university and industry partners, including Nova Systems, BAE Systems and Airbus, kick off their research. And a link is also developing with the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC with project leader Dr Marta Yebra, who is working at the Australian National University on remote sensing of bushfire fuel conditions.

Mapping fire fronts from space in real-time is achievable, says Phinn.

“We know which algorithms we’d put on these platforms and how to refine them. As the algorithms get better, we’re gradually improving the mapping and monitoring we do. There’s no way we’d have had funding to do that before this CRC.” — Gregor Ferguson

smartsatcrc.com

Digital Health: Better for you

Sarah Keenihan discovers how digital health, improved data integration and innovative manufacturing are making Australians healthier.

COVID-19 has accelerated Australia’s demand for digital health delivery. But even before this change, Professor Tim Shaw was pressing for greater integration of everyday technologies into healthcare. 

“It’s crazy we don’t use simple technologies for better health management,” says Shaw, who is Director of Research and Workforce Capacity at the Digital Health CRC. “There are simple technologies we can apply, and most of these already exist .”

The Digital Health CRC is working with industry partners — such as healthcare solutions company HMS — to deliver personalised healthcare messages for patients with chronic heart conditions. They are developing interactive voice response systems for this purpose and also plan on utilising text messages and emails.

More broadly, the CRC aims to improve the use of data for informed decision-making by doctors, and refine services and models of care in general practice and hospitals.

“Data can empower teams on the floor,” says Shaw. “We want to equip clinicians with access to useful information.”

The Digital Health CRC has 80 industry partners, including 16 universities.

“You can’t do digital health without industry,” says Shaw. “Working in the CRC environment helps us to be more nimble, more agile, and to focus on innovation without being bogged down. But we’re still powered by academic expertise.”

Aged care, and health at a distance

Assisted aged care is a health area ready for innovation through technology. With partners Aged and Community Services Australia and the Aged Care Guild, the Digital Health CRC recently created the Living Better Lab to trial technologies to improve delivery of aged care services. 

Enhancing the health of Australians living outside our main cities is another key focus for the CRC. 

“It’s a question of equity”, says Professor Suzanne Robinson, Flagship Director for the Rural and Remote team. Relatively low access to health services partially explains why Australians living in rural and remote areas have shorter lives and higher levels of disease and injury. 

“We’re working to apply digital technology to help all Australians access health services,” says Robinson. “The CRC provides the right environment to pilot ideas for managing health outside urban centres.” 

The Digital Health CRC is working with the WA Country Health Service to expand technology application through their telehealth platforms.  

Long-distance sharing of digital images and patient records between urban and rural doctors, and expanded use of artificial intelligence, may bridge health gaps between city and country dwellers. 

New materials for knee repair

It’s not just data that can transform Australia’s health; new materials are also being developed. Orthopaedic care is a good example, where clinicians seek effective solutions to fix faulty bones and joints. 

Torn or ruptured ligaments are a big part of this problem. Orthopaedic surgeon Nick Hartnell estimates a global annual market of around $14 billion for replacement parts, taking into account procedures to knees, shoulders and ankles. 

Hartnell devised a uniquely Australian solution: kangaroo tendons. 

As head of startup Bone Ligament Tendon Pty Ltd, he’s working as part of a $6.9 million Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IMCRC) project to explore the viability of roo tendons to form donor ligaments in human patients. Allegra Orthopaedics and the University of Sydney are also partners. 

“It could be as fast as two to three years to get to market,” says Hartnell. “We’re making really good progress already.” 

In Australia, rates of surgical reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) — a fibrous band that stabilises the knee joint — have increased during the past decade. 

“There’s no question the numbers of operations are going up and more of them are in young patients and women,” says Hartnell. 

He says the standard approach for ACL repair is to take a piece of tendon from another part of the human body — usually the hamstring — and replace the faulty one within the knee. But ligament failure is quite common using this method. 

Kangaroo tendons are strong, long and easily available

Enter kangaroo tendon, which is strong, long and easily available. “We collect tendons from animals that have already been culled for the human and pet meat markets,” says Hartnell. The tendons are then treated in the lab to prepare for insertion. 

To counter the risk of detachment from the bone, replacement roo ligaments are secured within recipient knees using 3D-printed ceramic biodegradable screws. 

“The patient’s own bone grows into innovative screws and the original materials dissolve away over time,” explains David Chuter, CEO and Managing Director at IMCRC. 

“There’s lots of interest in the commercialisation of these screws for other orthopaedic uses as well.”  

It’s a good example of how an innovation can have benefits beyond what it was originally designed for. 

“Patients, the healthcare system, state governments and even insurance companies may all see the benefits of this innovation in the long run,” says Chuter. 

“Manufacturing like this is rapidly moving towards being an enabler for many industries.”  

You never know where technology will take you.

Digitalhealthcrc.com

imcrc.org

3D tech solution keeps trains moving

Keeping trains on schedule during peak hour is a major challenge for rail operators, with crowds often causing trains to ‘dwell’ at stations for longer than usual. This can force delays and longer commutes, as well as reduce the number of trains running across the network. 

The Rail Manufacturing CRC (RMCRC) has teamed up with the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and integrated services company Downer to solve this problem. They developed Dwell Track, a tool that combines 3D camera technology and algorithms to track the movement of passengers on rail platforms in real time.

Rail operators can use this data to manage crowds at peak times and keep schedules running smoothly.

It can also help them to make quicker decisions when managing busy platforms, such as increasing overhead announcements and providing signs that show passengers where to stand.

“Not only does Dwell Track have the potential to reduce travel time and delays for passengers, it could also increase the number of passengers served on the train network,” says Larry Jordan, Research Director at RMCRC.

The system, which was trialled at Wynyard Station in the city’s CBD, includes 16 camera devices, a mobile-based tool that shows captured camera data and dashboards that provide analytics summaries. 

Hervé Harvard, director of UTS Rapido, a research unit that develops technology solutions for industry, says understanding the needs of rail operators was central to the project’s success. 

“We wanted to understand how rail operators would use the product and design a solution that would actually meet their needs,” says Harvard. “It’s a very user-centred design as a result.”

Gemma Conroy

rmcrc.com.au

Packaging up a perfect PhD in food waste

Researcher Ruby Chan joined the Fight Food Waste CRC as a PhD student through RMIT and she is already exploring innovative ways to recycle packaging more effectively to prevent food waste.

While undertaking a Master’s degree in design innovation and technology at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Chan designed single-use tableware and food containers from plant-based polymers and repurposed agricultural fibres such as corn husks, which are fully compostable after use.

The innovation holds an Australian patent.

“There’s a real tug-of-war going on around sustainability and packaging,” says Chan, adding that Australia has committed to sustainable packaging targets in 2025, and has also joined a global target to halve food waste by 2030.

“Packaging — including plastic packaging — has an important role to play in reducing food waste,” she says. While consumers often have a knee-jerk reaction against packaging, the greenhouse gas emissions from producing and distributing food are often higher than the impact of appropriate packaging solutions, adds Chan.

She says there’s a packaging impact see-saw where increased packaging results in less food waste, but you have to balance out the environmental impact. “When you get everything right [appropriate design and amount of packaging] then the packaging impacts are less than if the food was to go to waste.

“We need to educate the wider community to differentiate between types of packaging and understand their use and role in product protection, and also how to dispose of them properly.” 

Chan is scoping out her research at present, exploring the different packaging types found in supermarkets. “This includes resealable packaging, modified atmosphere packaging for meats and even packaging that regulates the exchange of gases to keep vegetables fresh,” she says, adding that access to a wide range of industries through the CRC makes it the ideal place to do this research.

FightFoodWasteCRC.com.au

It’s time for a food-waste fight

Business as usual with food waste has serious consequences for the climate and the economy. Fran Molloy reports

Australia’s agriculture industry produces some of the freshest and healthiest food in the world. Workers in the agrifood industry spend long hours preparing soils, planting seeds, watering and fertilising crops, and carefully harvesting and transporting foods to market. But nearly half of all the food we produce goes to waste.

“Food waste is a really huge issue, wasting about $20 billion every year in Australia alone. It’s also the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases,” says Dr Steven Lapidge, CEO of the Fight Food Waste CRC.

The Fight Food Waste CRC began in 2018 and has 50 industry and 10 research partners bringing $63 million cash and $57 million in-kind contributions over the 10-year term. The CRC will reduce food waste throughout the supply chain, transform unavoidable waste into high-value products and run programs to deliver a national behaviour change program.

In developed countries such as Australia, around half of food waste occurs in households. The rest occurs across the supply chain, from agriculture, to post-harvest, to processing, delivery, distribution and food services.

More than 70 per cent of Australians want to reduce food waste, says Lapidge. “We are following up our first big study around household food waste behaviour with an economic study to work out how much food people throw away each year and what that costs the average household.”

From second-best to a brand new market

One food waste win is happening in the potato industry, where around 40 per cent of premium potatoes destined for supermarket shelves are ‘graded out’ for flaws such as size, shape or blemishes. Lapidge says the CRC is working on a large market opportunity. Australia currently imports 20,000 tonnes of potato starch for commercial use which could easily divert waste potatoes to develop a starch industry.

“Through the CRC, four of our largest commercial potato growers have come together to develop alternative value chains for the graded-out potatoes that currently go to low-value uses such as composting, animal feed and even landfill,” he says.

Lapidge explains that most individual growers would struggle to develop a large-scale potato starch production facility on their own, but working together through a CRC makes this and other alternatives feasible. These second-best potatoes could be turned into potato starch, but may have even better value as nutraceuticals or prebiotics, which have a higher value.

Another similar project underway with Swinburne University and Swiss Wellness involves diverting wine industry waste – grape marc – into valuable products. “Grape seed extract is one of the most popular products in the nutraceutical market and has got well demonstrated benefits as an antioxidant, yet we import all our grape seed extract from overseas,” says Lapidge.

He says the CRC’s Transform program diverts waste from horticultural production — such as grape seeds or potatoes that don’t make the grade — into nutraceuticals and other products, which saves money but also generates new high-value income streams.

“Residual waste streams can even be turned into bioplastics or biofuels,” says Lapidge.

FightFoodWasteCRC.com.au

Waste reduction in other food CRCs Reducing waste through a circular food economy

FOOD AGILITY CRC

The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Lendlease are part of a Food Agility CRC project using technology to develop a prototype community composting system, and establish Australia’s first sustainable food city at Yarrabilba in southeast Queensland. Residents are rewarded with ‘green credits’, to be exchanged for food-based goods and services. This urban agriculture model can be applied in other cities and towns.

FoodAgility.com

Reducing waste with vertical urban indoor farms

FUTURE FOOD SYSTEMS CRC

The Australian Centre for Robotic Vision at QUT is developing automated protected cropping technologies in partnership with vertical farming entrepreneurs Greenbio Group. The vertical hydroponics facility in Brisbane supports 25,000 plants, using less than half the water and a quarter of the space of traditional hydroponic systems. Vertical farms also have less post-harvest spoilage and waste.

 FutureFoodSystems.com.au

Adapting to angry summers: Australian Bushfires

From her bush block in the Blue Mountains, Bianca Nogrady considers how researchers will tackle the ‘new normal’ for severe bushfire weather.

On February 7, 2009, several bushfires in Victoria burned through 450,000 hectares over two days, destroying more than 2000 homes, killing 173 people plus an estimated one million wild and domestic animals. 

Between September 2019 and March 2020, hundreds of bushfires burned through almost 19 million hectares across Australia, destroying more than 2500 homes, killing more than one billion birds, animals and insects, and driving many species to the brink of extinction. But the death toll was lower, at 33 people. 

Every one of those lives lost was a tragedy that devastated families, friends, colleagues and communities. But given the unprecedented scale, ferocity and duration of this season’s fires, the fact that comparatively few lives were lost suggests that since Black Saturday, we have made profound changes to the way we predict, understand and respond to bushfires. 

Many of those changes have come about because of the collaborative research undertaken by the Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

“We strongly believe the work of the CRC has been instrumental in reducing the death toll out of these fires,” says Dr Richard Thornton, Chief Executive Officer of the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC (BNH CRC). The relatively low death toll from the 2019–2020 bushfire season is astonishing to many people working with bushfires, especially given that there were several days during the season when conditions were as catastrophic as those experienced during the 2009 Black Saturday fires. 

Getting better, earlier warnings

One of the areas of change is communication: how, where, why and to whom emergency warnings are delivered, and the content and wording of those warnings. Communication has been an active area of research from the early days of the original Bushfire CRC, which was established in 2003 and morphed into a focal program of the current BNH CRC from 2013.

Associate Professor Amisha Mehta, a risk and crisis communications expert at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Business School, has been working with the BNH CRC on risk communication during bushfires and other natural hazards.

She says the wording of risk and emergency warnings is a delicate balancing act between trust and encouraging individual responsibility. 

“In our co-designed messages, we have enhanced trust but at the expense of reducing people’s perception of personal responsibility,” says Mehta. “So we learn from that and talk about ways to maintain trust and enhance or build people’s ability or confidence in being able to take the actions needed.”

Extensive research on how people respond to emergency warnings and risk messages has led to some bushfire and emergency agencies changing the wording of their message headings. The three tiers of ‘Advice’, ‘Watch and Act’ and ‘Emergency Warning’ are classifications firmly embedded into the way emergency management organisations work since the Black Saturday bushfires.

However, those headings don’t necessarily reflect the way individuals think in a bushfire situation. Instead, some agencies are switching to what Mehta describes as more ‘community-minded’ language. “Instead of ‘emergency warning’, the lead is ‘leave now’, or ‘leave immediately’, or ‘shelter in place’, so it’s the behaviour that is captured in the heading,” she says. 

After those headings comes more detailed information about the location and type of hazard, timing and other aspects. 

For example, the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services have amended their headings to ‘Advice: monitor conditions’, ‘Watch and Act: conditions are changing’, and ‘Emergency: you are in danger’. 

Mehta and her colleagues’ research also showed that adding a reason for the warning helped the message get across. “If you add a rationale, such as ‘leaving now is your safest option’, even though it makes the message longer, it enhances residents’ self-efficacy, so it makes them feel more confident in taking the behaviour.”

NSW Rural Fire Service and BNH CRC researchers. Image: BHN CRC

When to leave and who to tell

Another active area of CRC-led research is when and to whom those messages should be sent. 

Bushfire predictions have taken a quantum leap forward in recent years with the development of a variety of computerised modelling systems that can predict bushfire risk from as far out as one year ahead of a season to an hour-by-hour update on where a bushfire is likely to spread or its embers land.

Two products helping fire agencies calculate risk are Phoenix and SABRE Fire. Ben Twomey is a fire behaviour analyst and executive manager of advanced capability in the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, and he works with both these fire modelling systems. “Part of the reason for the comparatively low number of deaths this season is the prediction capability and our ability to get people out of the way of fires that we know are going to be catastrophically bad,” he says. 

Phoenix is a fire simulator program developed by the Bushfire CRC and the University of Melbourne. It characterises fire spread across the landscape based on forecast weather — temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction — fuel maps, topography of the landscape, wind modification by the landscape, vegetation, the fire history of an area and other factors such as roads, fire breaks and rivers.

When that data is put into the system, along with weather inputs to account for factors like the effect of pyrocumulonimbus, the output is a map forecasting where that fire is likely to spread to in the next hours and days. 

But as anyone who has ever tried to plan a picnic knows, the weather forecast is a probabilistic prediction; it offers a likelihood — not a certainty — of the weather being a certain way. To account for that element of uncertainty, there’s SABRE Fire. 

“We don’t know those inputs with a great deal of certainty and we’d rather be broadly right than precisely wrong,” says Twomey. 

SABRE Fire calculates a range of scenarios by varying some of the inputs at random, like a much higher wind speed or much lower humidity, “so when we talk about worst case scenarios, theoretically it’s already built in”.

When fire controls the weather

There are some wildcards in fire behaviour modelling and pyroconvective fire behaviour is one of those. This refers to the enormous weather systems that can develop above intense fires — so-called ‘fire thunderstorms’ — and drastically alter weather and fire behaviour. “It’s like putting a chimney on top of the fire and getting a nice big draw around the edge – it goes berserk,” says Twomey.  

Research by the BNH CRC has worked out the minimum heat required for these pyrocumulonimbus systems to develop in various environments, which should help better forecast these events and allow for their incorporation into fire behaviour modelling. 

This research will be part of the next generation of fire spread models, which includes weather modelling conducted by the Bureau of Meteorology, as well as in more real-time models being developed with CSIRO and capable of being used in control centres just like Phoenix. 

Even with all the best predicting, forecasting and messaging, people and properties are still being caught in bushfires. Understanding how and why that happens is the question Dr Josh Whittaker from the University of Wollongong and the BNH CRC is trying to answer.

After fires have passed through, Whittaker and colleagues visit those communities and interview residents about their awareness of bushfire risk, what planning and preparations they had done before the fire, what information and warnings they received and how they responded. 

“Those findings are fed back into fire services to help them better communicate with communities and better prepare them for bushfire in the future,” says Whittaker. 

Having worked on many fires since the devastating Black Saturday bushfires, Whittaker says there is always a wide range of preparedness levels in the community.

“There always seem to be people who have done little or nothing to prepare and therefore have difficult experiences in fires,” he says. “Through to the other end of the spectrum, where people are very well prepared and are either able to safely leave, as is their plan, or remain to defend their farms or houses.”

Understanding those decisions is critical to helping shape messaging and awareness campaigns about bushfire preparedness. Whittaker says one interesting finding is how many people in bushfire-exposed areas are unaware they are even at risk.

One change he has seen over time is greater focus and understanding of the ‘leave early’ message during bushfires.

There’s also greater awareness of the high level of planning and preparation that is required by anyone thinking of staying to defend their property. And it seems the most important message is being heard: don’t leave anything to the last minute.

Moving forward

There is a mountain of research to be done after this bushfire season, which will help researchers understand what contributed to the severity of this season and how well predictions, preparedness and response systems worked. But there is also the question of how Australia’s experience of bushfires will change in the future. 

There is also population growth and how that changes the relationship between humans and the bush. There is the question of settlement strategies and decisions by local and state governments, and what role the insurance industry will play in that.

There are new technologies that will present opportunities and challenges, when it comes to preparedness and response to bushfires. And finally, there is perhaps the greatest challenge of all: climate change.

 bnhcrc.com.au

Blue light helps the body clock tick

While we rely on electric light bulbs, television screens and mobile devices, they also break our body’s innate links to bright sunlit days and dark nights, perhaps dimly illuminated by the moon and stars, and often cost us sleep. 

That sleep loss doesn’t come cheap: inadequate shut-eye cost the Australian economy $66.3 billion in 2016-17 through a loss of wellbeing and productivity.

Flooding the night with light affects the human production of melatonin – a hormone that helps regulate sleep. However, new research from the Alertness CRC shows the brightness of artificial light is not the main problem — it’s the amount of blue light in a light source that most impacts our internal clocks.

“High dosages of electric light at night can be very confusing for the body clock and leads to disrupted sleep that, over time, affects people’s health and mood,” says Monash University neuroscientist Associate Professor Sean Cain, a circadian rhythms expert. This is partly why many long-term shift workers experience health issues, he adds.

“At the same time, we need people to be alert at work, particularly when they are operating in safety-critical roles, so that’s when exposure to more blue light becomes important.”

The Alertness CRC, in collaboration with Australian SME Versalux Lighting Systems and Monash University, have developed MelaGen™ — LEDs that can be programmed to vary blue light content across any single building environment. This dynamic approach regulates visual and non-visual light to maximise wellbeing.

“MelaGen™ can assist in resetting circadian rhythms and promoting good quality sleep,” says Vince Macri, National Product Manager, Healthcare at Versalux.

He says the MelaGen™ system can also enhance vision and improve health, safety, performance and wellbeing in the workplace. — Brendan Fitzpatrick

AlertnessCRC.com

Rostering for better health and productivity

Australia’s growing connection to the global economy ensures it is open for business 24/7. While people in health, transport and emergency services have historically worked around the clock, globalisation expands work hours beyond nine-to-five for people across increasingly varied industries.

Shift work and irregular rostered hours can worsen workers’ health, safety and productivity. As Australians work longer, more unconventional hours, there’s

greater demand on employers to reduce workplace risks by putting fatigue management plans in place.

The Alertness CRC has brought Australian optimisation software company Opturion and Monash University together to create the world’s first software program that automatically applies fatigue rules to create better staff rosters.

“AlertSafe® Rostering is a cloud-based integrated rostering system that helps employers design an optimal roster that takes into account employees’ constraints and preferences, and seeks to limit and mitigate worker fatigue,” says Alan Dormer, CEO of Opturion.

He says avoiding fatigue caused by a poorly designed roster will help reduce industrial accidents. “Research shows that avoiding fatigue, mistakes and non-conformances can be reduced by up to 30 per cent. Initial results from the Monash Medical Centre trial are similar. Other benefits are increased productivity and a reduction in sickness absence.”

The engine room behind the software is a complex algorithm offering sophisticated fatigue management in roster building, roster management, human capital management, and time and attendance systems. AlertSafe® can highlight fatigue risk on an individual, team and enterprise level.

“We can design a fatigue-mitigating roster that is better for employees and can reduce costs to employers,” says Monash University and Alertness CRC theme leader Professor Mark Wallace.

— Brendan Fitzpatrick

 alertnesscrc.com

Future-proofing our soils

Australian soils are subject to many kinds of stress, such as compaction, erosion and low rainfall. Poor soil can have a huge impact on our agricultural productivity.

The CRC for High Performance Soils (Soil CRC) is bringing together scientists, industry and farmers to research practices that help farmers to improve their soil. The CRC includes university, farmer group and state government partners.

“The CRC is bringing new technologies and ideas into farming systems with the goal of making them more resilient,” says Dr Lukas Van Zwieten, who leads a Soil CRC program focusing on applying research to solve multiple soil issues at once. “This means farms may function for a longer period going into water stress and when the drought breaks, they bounce back more quickly.

“Water is the main limiting factor for crop and pasture productivity in Australia,” adds Van Zwieten. Compaction due to large machinery used on farms can compound these issues, as can soil chemical constraints such as sodicity, which make it harder for water to penetrate the soil.

Natural improvements

Once farmers harvest their crops, farmland can remain fallow for months or even years. Soil CRC researchers — including Professor Terry Rose at Southern Cross University, one of the project leaders within the program — are looking at using that time to grow plants specifically selected to improve soil resilience. They have trial plots for sugar cane and grain crops across Australia, including in northern Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia.

“Sugar cane production in northern Queensland is often affected by pests called nematodes, which eat the sugar cane roots,” says Van Zwieten. “So CRC researchers are trialling the use of a kind of mustard plant that has biofumigant activity to decrease the amount of these nematodes in the soil.”

The researchers are also trialling using cover crops that add extra nutrients to the soil when they break down. One of these plants is a large legume called Sunn Hemp or Indian Hemp (Crotalaria juncea) which can fix its own nitrogen from the atmosphere. It also has a large root system that creates a lot of biomass, becoming food for microbial life.

“Like any other animal, microbes have to eat,” says Van Zwieten. “And what they eat is organic material. Like you or I might eat a piece of bread, microbes eat organic compounds exuded from roots and the biomass from plant matter left over from the harvest. 

By growing cover crops, farmers can maximise organic inputs into soil, increasing microbial abundance and biodiversity, and potentially increase plant-available nutrients for future crops across Australia.”

CRC researchers are also using plants to physically open the soil to reduce compaction. “The tillage radish has a large taproot which basically opens the soil. As it breaks down, you get large holes in the soil, so when it rains you’ve got an easy pathway for water.”

The CRC researchers will test the soil in a lab to see how it performs when exposed to water stress. “We are hoping these mixed-species cover crops will result in bigger, better yields and yields that might be more resilient to weather variability,” says Van Zwieten. “That’s what farmers need.

“Where farming systems or chemical inputs are becoming more difficult to use due to restrictions and cost, these types of alternative management practices are becoming more important.” 

— Cherese Sonkkila

Soilcrc.com.au

Towards diverse boards: Pathways to directorship

The most common undergraduate degree for ASX 50 CEOs is science. However, when it comes to the boardroom, Australia lacks technical literacy, according to a recent member survey by the Australian Institute of Company Directors

Although three-quarters of members said their organisation had an innovation vision, more than half said innovation rarely, if ever, featured on their board’s agenda. Also, worryingly, only around one-third of members felt their board possessed the right skills and expertise to properly consider modern technology, and only 3 per cent of directors had personal expertise in science and technology. 

While having scientists on boards is certainly a step in the right direction, technical expertise is not the only form of diversity a board would benefit from. Australia also has a problem when it comes to gender diversity on boards, with less than one-third of people on ASX 200 boards being women.

The CRC Association commissioned Women on Boards to conduct a survey on CRC board diversity. Among other things, it showed women’s representation had only slightly improved throughout the decade.  

The session at Collaborate Innovate 2019, where the results were presented, prompted a question from a talented CRC program manager, to the effect of, “How does a young researcher ever get onto a board?”

I found the answer from the stage — which was essentially to go and do a $10,000 course — unsatisfying. So did the individual who asked the question, noting that their employer was unlikely to send anyone who was not already a senior manager on a course at that level.  

This year, the CRC Association has responded with its new board diversity initiative, ‘Towards Diverse Boards: Pathways to Directorship’. We have partnered with the Governance Institute of Australia to offer 20 people from groups currently under-represented on boards to undertake the Institute’s Certificate in Governance Practice or Certificate in Governance for Not-for-Profits. The Certificates will be completed online and are heavily subsidised to reduce the barrier to entry.

But we know access to formal education is not enough to facilitate change. While the participants are studying, we’ve organised some incredible coaches on various aspects of best practice: the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, The Hon Karen Andrews MP; head of the Australian Space Agency, Dr Megan Clark; former president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, Dr Marlene Kanga; CEO of the Governance Institute of Australia, Megan Motto; former chief scientist of South Australia, Dr Leanna Read; and the chair of the CRC Association, Belinda Robinson. 

We’re also partnering with Dr Ruby Campbell, managing partner and founder of ProVeritas Group and author of Scientists in Every Boardroom: Harnessing the Power of STEMM Leaders in an Irrational World.

In order to spread the message further, every Towards Diverse Boards participant will receive a complimentary copy of Scientists in Every Boardroom, as will every Collaborate Innovate 2021 conference attendee. I hope they will find it useful and that it serves to remind them of their role in encouraging more scientists and other kinds of diversity on boards. After all, research shows us that diversity pays off.

Tony PeacockTony Peacock is the CEO of the Cooperative Research Centres Association.

Towards smarter transport

Transport affects every one of us every day, even if we stay at home. Better (more convenient, faster/more efficient, more reliable, more comfortable…) transport systems improve lives, communities and industries, but there are many challenges to overcome to make it happen.

On one hand we have disruption and constant evolution in passenger transport. With the stream of new entrants into this space comes a raft of questions for traditional transport service providers, particularly state and local governments. 

On the other hand we have the fragmented, low-margin world of freight, which desperately needs to collaborate to improve, but is subject to significant commercial sensitivities that impede willingness to go down that path. 

Ten years is a necessary amount of time to conduct significant R&D, but also a challenging timeframe in a fast-changing transport environment.

We are pleased to be delivering some things years before we anticipated — in particular, the momentum that has built around Mobility as a Service (MaaS) — but we can also reference the growth in number and capability of journey-planning apps for mobile phones. Our research into MaaS has already expanded from an initial investigation into consumer attitudes, to a real-world trial happening in Sydney delivering valuable insights.

It is research that pushes us closer to fully integrated transport services in our increasingly crowded cities, enabling people to reduce their dependence on single-occupant vehicles. 

Some research areas remain worthy of ongoing investigation and trial, but are proving to be further off than previously anticipated, such as automated vehicles. They were once a frenzy of media commentary and speculation, yet the complexities of getting a computer to mimic a human driver and the challenge of winning community acceptance of this technology are now much clearer. 

Queensland is particularly active in Australia’s research into the benefits and challenges of vehicle connectivity and the safety and efficacy of highly automated vehicles. 

There is also some movement in collaboration to improve freight, albeit of a much less disruptive nature. Last year, we completed the well-received Freight Data Requirements Study on behalf of the Federal Department of Infrastructure to assist them with their development of the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy. The department is now drawing on that study to inform their development of the National Freight Data Hub. We believe supply chains will greatly benefit from improved visibility, and this is supported by a suite of projects — currently information — that will devise practical and realistic ways to achieve this.

Another way our partners are looking to deliver better transport is by being more holistic. Integration of our transport and land planning is not a new concept, but it is one that deserves renewed attention for its potential to achieve simultaneously favourable social, environmental and economic outcomes.

There is already much diversity in the 39 projects in the iMOVE portfolio, and every day brings new opportunities.

Trends are emerging in what we have learnt and how we can build on this for future activities. 

Transport needs to continue widening its collaborations and embrace national coordination to ensure the benefits are shared as we all progress towards a better transport future — whether we choose to leave the house or not!

 imoveaustralia.com

Transforming manufacturing: Industry 4.0

Embracing deep tech is transforming Australia’s manufacturing sector.

Manufacturing in Australia has faced big challenges, as well as embraced big opportunities, in recent decades as globalisation impacts supply chains, competition ramps up internationally, and consumer markets expand and demand new, innovative products.

Despite the challenges, the sector is an important part of the Australian economy, employing around one million people — the seventh biggest employing industry — and accounting for 11 per cent of annual export earnings.

The Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IMCRC) runs from 2015 to 2022 and aims to accelerate Australian manufacturing into the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0), helping companies transform into high-value, high-knowledge-based businesses that will flourish in the digital economy. 

“Australia’s manufacturing sector is seeing a new generation of high-tech advanced manufacturers emerge,” says David Chuter, CEO and Managing Director of IMCRC. “We hope to strengthen them and the sector to be resilient to future disruptions and ensure Australia has national capabilities that are also world relevant.”

Manufacturing has been hit hard by free-trade deals and competition from low-wage economies in recent decades, but globalisation goes both ways, he says.

“We’re now seeing companies embracing innovation in every aspect of their business, undertaking extensive research, adopting advanced manufacturing techniques and looking overseas for growth.”

IMCRC works closely with local manufacturers to co-fund industry-led research collaborations that help companies explore innovative business models and new technologies, adopt additive manufacturing and advanced materials, apply automation and robotics to improve processing and use sensors and data analytics to streamline production and boost reliability.

To date, IMCRC has more than 30 research projects approved in all primary industry sectors across Australia.

“Our role is more than just co-funding manufacturing research projects that help catalyse the uptake of Industry 4.0 technologies, although that’s part of it,” says Chuter.

Most businesses in Australia’s manufacturing sector are small and medium enterprises with revenue below $10 million and employing fewer than 20 people. 

IMCRC’s Industrial Transformation Program helps SMEs become advanced manufacturers to support the wider cause of manufacturing transformation.

The program offers SMEs education and advocacy resources to help them rethink their business operations and adopt a new approach to manufacturing, constantly enhance and improve their processes and embrace advanced digital technologies to drive value for business and consumers.

IMCRC has developed a business diagnostic tool called futuremap®. Since the 2018 launch, the CRC has run more than 50 futuremap® workshops across Australia, guiding hundreds of local manufacturers through identifying areas of improvement in their business.  

Upgrading Mattress Manufacturing

David Kaplan, Founder and Managing Director of Melbourne-based manufacturer Sleep Corp, attended a futuremap® workshop before embarking on an Industry 4.0 research project with Swinburne University, co-funded by IMCRC.

“We’re embracing Industry 4.0 systems so that Sleep Corp can continue as a proud Australian-owned and made manufacturer on the world stage, delivering exceptional products as efficiently and as cost-effectively as possible,” he says.

Sleep Corp was founded in 1980 and produces the Protect-A-Bed brand of mattress protectors sold in Australia and New Zealand, as well as other top-of-bed consumer and commercial-grade ranges.  Since January 2019, the company has been working with Swinburne University to develop a novel Virtual Manufacturing System (VMS) to fully automate their manufacturing plant.

The VMS will connect robotics-based machinery to a digital twin, so product manufacture is faster and more flexible, and can quickly adapt to meet customer requirements while remaining cost-competitive.

imcrc.org

Improving mining efficiency

Cloud software to improve mining efficiency

Global demand for minerals shows few signs of slowing down, but decreased volumes of high-grade ore deposits remain. With tighter regulations in place to lessen the environmental impact of mining, conventional extraction methods are no longer sufficient and mining efficiency is key.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Optimising Resource Extraction (CRC ORE) has developed the Integrated Extraction Simulator (IES), a modelling system designed to improve mining efficiency.

“The IES software product has been designed as a complete mine-to-concentrate decision support system,” says Nick Beaton, who heads up the IES program at CRC ORE

He says the cloud-based software lets mining engineers test possible changes that could be made in mining efficiency processes, then compare different scenarios across different time frames. 

With modelling done in a virtual mine, a team of experts can collaborate on the simulation, all accessing the model simultaneously from anywhere in the world to test changes in the design, layout and operation of both the mining process and the concentrator in ways that can optimise metal production and reduce its environmental footprint.

“We’ve used IES to plan continuous improvement initiatives in the mine-to-mill operations and to optimise multiple mining and processing scenarios across the life of the mine,” says Beaton.

 The IES can be used across different mining and processing procedures, starting from drill and blast, through all the stages of processing, from comminution to flotation to leaching.

Each process and each piece of equipment in the mine is configured using IES software to create a processing flowsheet, which is calibrated using historical surveys, mass balances and model-fitting exercises.

The simulator is trained by using historical data and refining its predictions, comparing these with the previous years’ operational data from the plant. Once the IES is trained to predict past performance accurately — with some fine-tuning applied — it is switched to optimise-mode. 

“This is where it gets interesting,” says Beaton. A lot of expensive computing happens next, but by using fully scalable cloud-based processing power, IES users aren’t outlaying for expensive computing equipment that lies idle most of the time.   

Mapping ore bodies in critical detail 

Engineers can do a mass simulation of every block in the ore body to test different mining and processing scenarios, even combining multiple rock types in the ore stream.

“The result provides the planning engineers with a 3D virtual view of the metallurgical landscape which they can use to optimise extraction and calculate recovery, throughput, operating cost per tonne, power consumption and even CO2 emissions,” says Beaton.

“Within IES, you can access models built by the best researchers in the industry, from blasting experts to leaders in comminution, separation and flotation.” 

Beaton says the IES system is being used to optimise processing operations by CRC ORE participants BHP, Teck, Anglo American and AngloGold Ashanti at mines in Australia, South America, Canada and Africa. 

In one example, IES helped improve the profitability of Anglo American’s Los Bronces mine in Chile by 5-6%.

“This is significant for the mine and for the whole industry,” says Beaton.

— Brendan Fitzpatrick

crcore.org.au