Sydney: It was a video of a waving robot that attracted NASA to the world’s most isolated city.
Engineers at Woodside Petroleum Ltd. in Perth, Australia, were just “messing around” teaching a toy robot to wave when they filmed it, Chief Technology Officer Shaun Gregory told a conference recently, but NASA liked what it saw. The U.S. space agency got in touch, and the two are now studying how to use robot technology to tackle problems in remote and difficult locations.
This sort of collaboration represents exactly what Australia’s largest state is trying to achieve. With some of the world’s biggest resource companies operating in the region, the state aims to become a hot spot for developing technology to help miners and oil explorers cut costs and boost efficiency.
“Western Australia has the opportunity to cement a place as the world’s epicenter of resources technology and innovation,” Mike Henry, the incoming chief executive officer of mining giant BHP Group, said at the inaugural Resources Technology Showcase in Perth last week. “Whether its autonomous haulage, robotics, drones, big data or artificial intelligence, we’re changing the way we work.”
NASA has loaned Woodside its Robonaut technology to explore ways to make tasks safer and more efficient on offshore oil and gas platforms, in the hope that the knowledge gained could be applied to future missions to the moon and potentially even Mars. Jason Crusan, formerly head of NASA’s advanced exploration program, moved to Perth in March to join Woodside’s technology division.
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“Western Australia is a place where solutions will be found to some of the most pressing challenges in global energy production while ensuring those activities are undertaken in a sustainable way,” Crusan said in an email.
Tucked along the Indian Ocean in the nation’s southwest corner, Perth soon gives way to the Outback’s iron-rich red soil and the giant mines that are core to its economy. It’s also home to firms like Woodside, which tap the huge oil and natural gas deposits offshore Western Australia.
With a population of almost 2 million and referred to as the world’s most isolated city — its nearest neighbor with more than 100,000 people is Adelaide, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) away — Perth has a frontier spirit that fits well with its aspiration to be a hotbed for innovation.
“We’re good at applying technology to solve problems in industry,” Bill Johnston, state minister for mines, petroleum and energy, said in an interview, adding that he’s especially keen to facilitate links between Perth’s universities and the corporate sector.
One example is the Centre for LNG Futures — a project led by the University of Western Australia and backed by energy majors including Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell Plc — which plans to build a mini liquefied natural gas facility in the Perth suburbs that can be used to test new ideas. The state government also used last week’s event to announce a new research center to develop subsea engineering technologies for offshore oil and gas production, also headed by UWA in partnership with Chevron and Woodside.
Perth is also an important center for the minerals that are helping drive the green economy. Some locals have taken to dubbing the city “lithium valley” for its high concentration of companies looking to mine and develop the key battery component. The Future Battery Industries research center at Curtin University is a collaboration across industry, government and academia to find opportunities in the fast-growing sector.
Western Australia’s Pilbara iron ore region, 1,300 kilometers north of Perth, has been a pioneer in the adoption of self-driving vehicles. Fortescue Metals Group was the first company to deploy Caterpillar Inc.’s autonomous haulage vehicles on a commercial scale, and aims to become the first miner to have a fully automated fleet. From its offices in Perth, Rio Tinto Group remotely operates the world’s first automated long-distance rail haulage network, which connects its iron ore mines to port facilities in the Pilbara.
While concerns have been raised that automation will hurt employment, the industry argues that it will merely lead to a shift in the types of jobs available. The Labor state government, which has close links to the mining and natural gas industries and has been criticized for not doing enough to tackle climate change, also says new technologies will allow companies to become more efficient, lowering their emissions.
The head of transport infrastructure at Rio’s iron ore operations, Ivan Vella, told the conference that the company’s AutoHaul train program had attracted interest from a wide range of companies and industries, including Class 1 railroad operators in the U.S. He said interest was not just in driverless trains, but all components of the project, citing work with the government into how AutoHaul could improve safety at level crossings.
“Other companies can pick off any one of those components,” he said, “where it’s valuable for them and makes a difference.”
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