From information warfare to cyber security, science and technology to bushfire prevention, today’s defence jobs aren’t all about pulling on the camouflage or jumping behind the controls of multimillion-dollar aircraft. Indeed, rather than up in the air or under the ocean, much of today’s defence work is actually carried out at CBD offices across the country. In South Australia, Professor Andy Koronios and his team at SmartSat CRC are based at Lot Fourteen where, in partnership with government, local industry and universities, they create innovative new technologies to build on Australia’s burgeoning space industry. The research uses space research and development (R&D) capabilities to develop next-generation telecommunications and Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, intelligent satellite systems and Earth observation data services.
Some of this technology centres around developing the space industry for both civilian defence and national security, as well as search and rescue. These satellite technologies are also a key component in defending the country’s natural landscape in areas including national water quality management and bushfire emergency response – the latter more critical than ever after the devastating fires that destroyed an estimated 18.6 million hectares across Australia from September 2019 to March this year.
“Most of the fire watching these days is either from fire towers or from people ringing up to report a fire,” Prof Koronios says. “We want to do better than that by having technologies that can detect the smoke or the radiance of the flame from space, so before the fire spreads you are able to automatically send a notification to the right people. They can then respond with a drone for example to confirm, before sending out the fire trucks.”
SmartSat’s answer proposes to use satellite technology combined with IoT smart sensors on the ground to monitor and calculate fuel loads to assess at-risk areas. “Because satellite resolution from space has improved, you’ll be able not only to detect the forest canopy but have the resolution where you can detect individual trees,” Prof Koronios says. “So for bushfires you can actually map the fire fuel load for every part of Australia and combine that with weather and other data. From this, you can with a high degree of accuracy develop models to see where is the fire risk and, if a fire is starting, where the fire front is likely to move.”
Using IoT message-type communication between mobile phones and the satellite, the new technology will provide all-time continuous connectivity, even in areas with no mobile phone tower. “This is the type of technology we’re going to build so that not only can people in isolated communities communicate but, very importantly, you can know where the firefighters and fire trucks are, where the people are who may be affected,” Prof Koronios says. “If you could combine all this information in one system at the emergency command and control centre, then they will be able to direct firefighting crew to where the fire is and protect them from harm’s way; they will also have the information to provide warnings to people in affected areas and guide out of the danger areas.
“Satellite technologies can also assist in the recovery stages after the fire has been extinguished because you need to see which properties have been damaged, what is happening with fire suppressants and cinder going into the water supplies and so on ... by having satellites detect all this from space you’re able to get information in the recovery phases. “Such early detection and effective response to bushfires can lessen the economic impact because the quicker you detect fires, the more you prevent them, the more lives are saved and the less cost to the economy. Bushfires cost the Australian economy billions every year.”
With international interest, Prof Koronios anticipates that such disaster management technology developed here in Australia will not only help by preventing more fires, but our know-how and technologies can be exported worldwide. “We are collaborating with other countries which are also advancing in this area to try to improve the technology that now exists, so we believe that we will have some results within the next couple of years,” he says.
While the hacking of major global companies Apple, Zoom, Facebook and Google Chrome – not forgetting the June cyber attack on the Australian Government – have made headlines this year, protecting South Australia’s small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) from cyber security threats is also key to the state’s defence strategy. Matt Fabri, founder and managing director of Adelaide-based start-up OpSys, is one of those tasked with keeping our businesses safe.
In 2017, OpSys partnered with US-based cyber security experts FireEye to leverage its Helix intelligence security platform, providing enterprise-grade security to smaller customers.
“We provide world-class technology to small-to-medium businesses and into Defence,” Fabri says. “We were FireEye’s global first MSSP (managed security service provider). We were able to buy the platform as a stack and then cut it down for our customers so they could afford it – where it would have cost $150,000-$250,000 to build this capability internally, we were able to offer it out at an affordable per-month charge. It made us feel really good we could provide the same technology as used by the top companies in the world into the SME market.”
With 99 per cent of Australian business carried out by the SME community, having access to affordable cyber security has never been more important. “We try to provide a capability to the Defence supply chain that means they can adhere to the cyber security standards without going broke – and not charging the taxpayer $1 billion to build a defence capability that should only cost $200 million,” Fabri says.
The demand for cyber security has helped OpSys grow from six people in a small office to a multi-disciplinary team of around 20 people including data scientists, data analysts, developers, coders, IT, programmers and security analysts now working in one of the biggest cyber security rooms in the country. “Because we’re working with the defence industry, we are very well known and still growing, and are looking to bring on more staff” Fabri says.
“We have just finished the build and migration of our own capability from FireEye to Elastic, which is great because it has given us more capability to expand upon.” As a self-confessed staunch South Australian, Fabri takes pride in the innovation, technology and collaboration that are driving his home state’s success. “The Adelaide market is fantastic because it’s small so you need to hold a lot of integrity,” he says. “We have entrepreneurs in South Australia who know we’re smart enough to do it and are all banding together. We know we can match anyone, can bring technology to the market and can bring venture capitalists to the state.
“Premier Steven Marshall has done a fantastic job of bringing cyber into the South Australian community and highlighting how important an issue it is. It’s been cool to get the government support for the industry and the shot across the bow to Australian businesses to say, ‘This is something you need to pay attention to’.”
There’s a buzz in the air at the RAAF Base Edinburgh in Adelaide’s northern suburbs – and it isn’t all about the aircraft.
The base is currently undergoing its most significant change since being formed in the 1950s, with another $500 million investment in infrastructure and technology to accommodate the 6000 Defence personnel and civilian contractors who work at the base and adjoining Defence Science and Technology Group hub, the largest Defence R&D organisation in Australia. And while much of that infrastructure revolves around the 12 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft currently winging their way to Edinburgh, the redevelopment is also bringing new aircraft, Australian Army units and logistics and engineering jobs on site.
“It’s a really exciting time for the rebirth of the base,” says Reg Carruthers, executive director defence and space, Defence SA. “There’s lots of work in cyber, systems engineering, mission analysists ... there will be at least 400 more people at Edinburgh over the next five-to-seven years supporting all of these new capabilities that are flying around.”
The new capabilities include three major projects:
And this doesn’t include the upgrades to the Woomera Range Complex and town, works at Cultana and upgrades to the Jindalee Over the Horizon Radar Network.
“Up to $500 million worth of infrastructure is set to go into the base just to support those platforms as they come in over the next few years,” Carruthers says. “It’s basically double the current infrastructure.”
The new hub places Edinburgh at the centre of Australia’s military intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare, with operators – uniformed, public servants and potentially contractors – working in a highly secure environment analysing, collecting and disseminating information on a real-time basis. “So Defence personnel can be deployed in, say, Northern Australia, but the information they are using could be coming from an asset flying somewhere else that is sending the information back to Edinburgh, where it is analysed and re-sent to the soldier in the field,” Carruthers says. “That’s where Edinburgh is going to be so critical to Defence.”
The significant investment in the Edinburgh base is also an investment in South Australia’s future, promising exciting career opportunities both today and for years to come. “It’s not only for the young men and women going through school and university now – it will definitely be an attractor for future generations,” Carruthers says. “The base is a very large employer of people in high-skilled, well-paid jobs; once the infrastructure is built, there will also be direct benefits to the local communities and the state.
“When we think about Defence we think about ships and submarines, but Edinburgh is the unsung hero of South Australia.”
The future is now at Adelaide’s Australian Institute of Machine Learning.
And – to help secure its cutting-edge position in the years ahead – there’s nothing Dr Kathy Nicholson and Professor Simon Lucey would love to see than more of South Australia’s smartest minds come through its doors.
It’s the only way, they say, of remaining at the global forefront of the burgeoning artificial intelligence sphere, which is today moving out of the pages of science fiction and into real-world applications.
Being based at Adelaide’s Lot Fourteen – in the repurposed former women’s health centre building at the corner of North Terrace and Frome Road – puts the AIML in a prime position to dovetail with the innovation precinct in exciting new STEM-focused careers.
Dr Nicholson joined earlier this year as operations manager of the institute, which was established through “generous” funding from the University of Adelaide and the State Government two years ago. She believes the close alignment means computer science students with an interest in sectors such as space, defence, agriculture and medicine will virtually be able to see their careers being created around them.
Machine learning is fundamental to AI, involving the study of computer algorithms to “teach” computers through example. Among projects being tackled at AIML, computers are essentially being taught to detect and identify individual objects in photographs or video – research that could see applications as far-reaching as helping autonomous vehicles get around safely or to facilitate tasks such as grape picking.
“Australia is not going to succeed in this space unless we have educated people to drive ideas forward,” Dr Nicholson says. “We need to create an ecosystem that enables and encourages our young minds to stay and contribute to Adelaide’s growth. By partnering with Lot Fourteen, AIML students see real world examples of how machine learning and AI are disrupting our technological workforce. By partnering with industry and encouraging local internship we’re actually helping create that workforce locally. That’s definitely part of our vision.”
AIML co-director Professor Simon Lucey says encouraging more primary and secondary school students into STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – subject streams will be key to “maintaining excellence” in the area.
Also a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Adelaide, he recently returned to Australia to settle in Adelaide with his young family after six years in the US, where he taught at the world-renowned Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
During this time he also worked for an autonomous vehicle company for three years as a principal research scientist, gaining valuable industry experience and perspective.
Professor Lucey says it is important to harness the “excitement around the technology” to inspire people to consider STEM subjects in their learning pathways.
“Australia needs more PhD (students) in computer science. We have to engage and build and get them early. We have to get them excited about the opportunities and the science … and let that passion transcend from the primary school years through to high school and university. We want the future PhD students of 2030 to start thinking about it now. We want them engaging now and thinking about their jobs.”
Professor Lucey says it is important to foster an “economy and community of ideas” in Adelaide and to be pro-active in the sector.
“I think that’s what’s exciting about Lot Fourteen – there’s room for commercial entities and educational entities co-located in the one area. It seems obvious, but if you look around the world, there’s not many places doing it. Lot Fourteen is very unique for Australia ... there are not a lot of places with the ability, the forethought, or the nous to go and do what the SA Government did. So hat’s off to them, and we have to pay back that trust and really create that ecosystem that generates up entrepreneurship and opportunities.
“It is the future. And if want to have a say in how the future is panning out we need our young people involved in STEM. That’s where the pipeline starts – none of this happens unless we get the STEM stuff right in Australia from the start.”
Dr Nicholson says the establishment of the AIML showed great foresight in a country that’s traditionally been ahead of the curve when it comes to developments in technology.
“The state government and the university (of Adelaide) identified that we had to be part of the game – and if we weren’t we were going to be left behind,” she says. “Therefore they saw the incentive to set up this institute, which is flourishing – we went from 20 members two years ago to 130 members today.”
Dr Nicholson says Australia has a huge reputation in the knowledge space, with the creation of wi-fi and CSIRAC – one of the first computers built in the world, in 1949 – among the nation’s list of credits. “We have been hitting above our weight for a very long time but we don’t celebrate that and push it through to our kids as much as we should.”
It’s also important to redress the gender bias by encouraging more girls to become involved in STEM subjects at an early age.
“The boys just go like moths to the fire – or to the computer game or whatever else – but the way girls engage is often more subtle, and somehow, despite the best intentions of parents and teachers we are still leaving them behind,” Dr Nicholson says. “It’s changing, but we still have a long way to go, especially in this field.”
Professor Lucey says if properly harnessed, the accuracy and efficiency of AI-assisted technology can deliver many benefits.
“Sometimes we get fearful, especially in western cultures, of this dystopian future of AI – the whole ‘they’re coming for our jobs and we’re going to get beaten by robots’ and that sort of thing – but AI has so many opportunities for good.
“I can’t see, for example, AI replacing a radiologist any time soon – but I can definitely see a radiologist that’s using AI replacing a radiologist that doesn’t. So in terms of enhancing productivity – and basically being able to use humans in more efficient and better ways – is so important for Australia because our demographics can benefit so much from it.”