This page belongs to: Action Plan for Critical Technologies

Autonomous systems operation technology

Self-governing machines that can independently perform tasks under limited direction or guidance by a human operator. Applications include passenger and freight transport, un-crewed underwater vehicles, industrial robots, public safety and defence.

Key sectors

Influences all sectors of the economy, including:

  • Agriculture
  • Banking & Finance
  • Communications
  • Construction
  • Defence & Defence Industry
  • Energy & Environment
  • Health
  • Transport & Logistics
  • Education & Research
  • Mining & Resources
  • Manufacturing
  • Space

Estimated impact on national interest

Economic Prosperity - High
National Security - High

Key Australian Government actions


  • Digital Economy Strategy including National Emerging Aviation Technologies Policy Statement and Partnerships
  • Office of Future Transport Technology – National Policy Framework for Land Transport Technology and Action Plan
  • 2020 Force Structure Plan
  • Next Generation Technologies Fund
  • CRC for Trusted Autonomous Systems
  • Positioning Australia Program
  • Advancing Space: Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019-2028
  • Artificial Intelligence Action Plan
  • CSIRO Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group
  • Modern Manufacturing Strategy
  • National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy


  • Civil Aviation Act 1988
  • Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1988
  • National Drone Detection Network
  • Defence and Strategic Goods List 2021

Example outcomes

  • Improved logistics and traffic management
  • Increased mine productivity and safety from autonomous systems used for detection, extraction and transport
  • Increased efficiency in agriculture through the use of autonomous systems for labour intensive or riskier tasks, e.g. weed management, crop spraying, picking
  • Improved environmental outcomes through enhanced monitoring and responses, including management of feral pests
  • Enhanced and expanded defence capabilities and operations
  • Increased capacity to monitor and respond to public safety needs, such as for bushfires and search and rescue operations
  • Expanded space operations through improved accuracy of operations and increased access to extra-terrestrial environments
  • Better patient outcomes from surgical robotics
  • Buildings constructed entirely by robots

Underpinning science

ANZ Standard Research Classification Category

  • Control engineering, mechatronics and robotics
  • Electrical engineering
  • Electronics, sensors and digital hardware
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Computer vision and multimedia computation
  • Human-centred computing
  • Information systems
  • Machine learning
  • Software engineering
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Communications engineering
  • Computer vision
  • Image processing
  • Photogrammetry and remote Sensing
  • Geospatial information systems and geospatial data modelling
  • Navigation and position fixing
  • Surveying
  • Networking and communications
  • System and network security

Example applications

Readiness Level – Now

  • Spot weeding and herding stock in agriculture
  • Autonomous transport in defined locations: shuttle buses on campus, trains transporting passengers between airport terminals, mining operations improving efficiency and safety with autonomous haulage systems
  • Security monitoring by self-deploying and self-charging drones
  • Warehouse operations with minimal human involvement
  • Lunar and Martian rovers
  • Auto-deploying speed bumps and/or bollards

Readiness Level – 2–5 years

  • Autonomous searches for survivors in collapsed buildings and natural disasters
  • Autonomous transport systems for shipping containers
  • Autonomous military applications: drones, flying ambulance shuttles on the battlefield, optional crewed vehicles, electronic warfare, logistic resupply, battle buddies, surveillance, cognitive radios and communication
  • High altitude, solar-powered aerial drones performing pseudo-satellite functions (only occasionally returning to earth for servicing)

Readiness Level – Beyond 5 years

  • Full integration of autonomous transport (cars, buses, trucks, trains) into urban, highway and rural traffic
  • Modular, self-healing autonomous building ‘blocks’ that can assemble into any infrastructure asset needed: mobile bridges, runways, take-off pads, road segments, shelters
  • Modular, self-healing satellite systems
  • Robotic assistants
  • Autonomous rescue

Australia's place in the world

The United States has the highest research impact in this area and also has 6 institutions in the top 10 internationally, including each of the top 3. China is 2nd. Australia is ranked 7th internationally for research impact, and the highest ranked University of New South Wales, is ranked 22nd internationally. Eight of the top 10 research institutes are from Five Eyes nations. The United States has the highest venture capital (VC) investment ahead of China and Japan; Australia is unranked. Globally, the number of patents has been increasing at around 22% p.a. since 2015, with the United States having the greatest number of patents, approximately 3 times the amount of 2nd ranked Japan which has slightly more patents than China; Australia is ranked 17th.

The United States is the global leader in autonomous systems operation technology, with significantly higher research impact, VC investment and patent filings than second ranked China.

Opportunities and risks

Autonomous systems operation technology promises to make Australia safer and more productive. These systems can replace humans in dangerous environments, such as underground mine sites, or when dealing with hazardous chemicals. Autonomous systems can also protect people and the environment, by enabling continuous or more frequent monitoring of places like national parks, unpatrolled beaches and sensitive heritage sights. Autonomous systems can make living outside Australia’s major urban centres more cost effective by reducing transport cost and making services more frequent. Autonomous systems can also enable older Australians to retain their independence, by reducing the cost of providing 24/7 support at home and in the community.

Autonomous systems operation technology is not without risk to Australia. Depending on the systems under their control, flawed or compromised autonomous systems could damage property and cause injury or even death. Autonomous systems will almost certainly replace some jobs, while also creating new ones. In the absence of sufficient oversight and regulation, autonomous systems may be used in ways that infringe upon individual Australians' privacy and autonomy. Autonomous systems operation technology, by reducing or eliminating direct human involvement, may also embolden geostrategic rivals, particularly between nations with differing access to the technology.

The development of standards for autonomous systems generally lags behind technological innovation and diffusion into applications, creating regulatory risks. There may also be differences in the value of these systems internationally, resulting in some states introducing, and potentially exporting, systems and applications that others would prohibit.

Research impact (RI)

The United States has the highest research impact in this area, ahead of China, with Australia ranked 7th. Total volume of published research has been increasing at 29% p.a. over the 5 year period 2016–2020, with 19% of research involving international collaboration.

  1. USA - 24690
  2. China - 11055
  3. UK - 7263
  4. Germany - 5710
  5. France - 4105
  1. Australia - 3218

The research impact provides an indication of the productivity of a country or institution. Here, productivity was assumed to be represented by the volume of publications (i.e. scholarly output) as an indicator of the resources & facilities, and the level of interest in the publications as an indicator of quality.

VC investment

The USA has significantly higher amounts of venture capital (VC) investment, well ahead of China and Japan. Australia is unranked for VC investment in autonomous systems technology. Investment in this area has been growing at 34% per annum since 2016.

  1. USA
  2. China
  3. Japan
  4. Israel
  5. Canada

Data from Crunchbase. The Crunchbase database provides a partial view of the global VC landscape. However the quantity, quality and richness of the data are considered to be statistically significant, and indicative of global trends.

Patents - international

The highest number of patents for this technology were filed by applicants or inventors from the United States, ahead of Japan and China. Australia ranks 17th. Overall patent applications have been rising by 22% since 2015.

  1. USA - 3758
  2. Japan - 1110
  3. China - 984
  4. Germany - 759
  5. R. of Korea - 672
  1. Australia - 38

Research institutions - international

The United States has 6 institutes in the top 10 international institutions, including each of the top 3 institutions. China, Canada, France and the United Kingdom make up the remaining institutes.

Rank Top International Institution Research Impact
1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology | United States 2418
2 Stanford University | United States 1938
3 University of Texas at Austin | United States 1625
4 Tsinghua University | China 1599
5 French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) | France 1522
6 University of California at Berkeley | United States 1503
7 University of Waterloo | Canada 1355
8 University of Oxford | United Kingdom 1275
9 Carnegie Mellon University | United States 1213
10 University of Michigan, Ann Arbor | United States 1045

Research institutions - Australia

Within Australia, the University of New South Wales has the highest research impact and is ranked 22nd internationally.

Rank Top Australian Institution Research Impact
1 University of New South Wales 672
2 University of Melbourne 366
3 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University 349
4 University of Sydney 336
5 Queensland University of Technology 252
6 Monash University 235
7 Deakin University 205
8 University of Technology Sydney 169
9 CSIRO 103
10 Australian National University 75

Patents - Australia

Eight Australian businesses filed one patent each for this technology from 2015 to 2019.