This page belongs to: Action Plan for Critical Technologies

Drones, swarming and collaborative robots

Uncrewed air, ground, surface and underwater vehicles and robots that can achieve goals with limited or no human direction, or collaborate to achieve common goals in a self-organising swarm. Applications for drones, swarming and collaborative robots include public safety, environmental monitoring, agriculture, logistics, and defence.

Key sectors

  • Agriculture
  • Health
  • Communications
  • Defence & Defence Industry
  • Energy & Environment
  • Transport & Logistics
  • Space

Estimated impact on national interest

Economic Prosperity - High
National Security - High

Key Australian Government actions

Initiatives

  • 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

Regulations

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

Example outcomes

  • Increased farm productivity, reduced reliance on chemical usage, and reduced wastage
  • Increased labour efficiency in the agriculture sector
  • Management of livestock and feral animals
  • Improved environmental outcomes through enhanced monitoring and responses
  • New avenues for the arts, journalism and entertainment, such as aerial and remote access photography and videography, and light shows
  • Enhanced and expanded defence capabilities and operations
  • Enhanced and expanded border surveillance
  • More detailed and more frequently updated digital maps
  • Increased capacity to monitor and respond to public safety needs, such as for bushfires and search and rescue operations
  • Greater capacity for aerial deliveries and improved logistics and traffic management

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

  • Recreational drones for nature photography, sports videography and drone swarm light show (entertainment)
  • Surveys and mapping
  • Farm monitoring for optimal cropping, weed spraying and irrigation
  • Wildlife monitoring such as beach shark patrol, biodiversity and habitat monitoring
  • Reforestation with tree-planting drones
  • Urgent deliveries (e.g. blood and medicine)
  • Weather forecasting and modification
  • Collaborative systems for security applications and police work
  • Solar-powered high-altitude pseudo satellite drones for surveillance and communication

Readiness Level – 2–5 years

  • Health and aged care service robots
  • Last mile drone delivery of goods for transport and logistics
  • Air traffic management/safety
  • Driverless combined transport (e.g. buses and cars)
  • Emergency response and firefighting, including swarms for rapid search and rescue
  • Semi-autonomous and autonomous systems for defence

Readiness Level – Beyond 5 years

  • City-wide drone swarm for rapid delivery of defibrillators and other lifesaving items
  • Underwater sensor network for water quality monitoring
  • Deployable and adaptive communication networks
  • Security and surveillance, including expansion in space, aero and undersea
  • Collaborative robotic swarms to move heavy items
  • Chemical, biological, radiation, nuclear locating and tracking swarm (convergence with autonomy)
  • Unmanned military air systems including airborne early warning and control, air-to-air refuelling, anti-submarine warfare

Australia's place in the world

Australia ranks 9th for research impact, led by the University of New South Wales, which ranks 11th internationally. China has the highest research impact and has 6 institutions in the top 10 international institutions. Venture capital investment is led by the United States and China, with Israel having the 3rd highest VC investment. Globally, the number of patents has been increasing at around 3% p.a., with the United States having the greatest number of patents, with Australia in 13th.

Australia’s strengths in foundational and applied research in this area cut across many sectors, including agriculture, advanced manufacturing, mining, and biodiversity and biosecurity. The CSIRO has been at the forefront of the development and real-world operation of long-range fully autonomous Unmanned Aerial Systems, which has focused on remote sensing in remote locations and inhospitable terrain. The University of New South Wales Defence Research Institute has key expertise in trusted AI enabled shepherding of human-swarm teams for defence and civilian applications.

Opportunities and risks

These autonomous systems will significantly affect Australian productivity and way of life. There is considerable potential for increased productivity in existing sectors and opening up new industrial sectors will result in improved economic sovereignty for Australia and jobs growth. In the logistics sector there are opportunities to improve safety.

Drones, swarming and collaborative robots rely on an interconnected system of technologies, including AI and machine learning. As such these technologies are subject to cyber risks and vulnerabilities, not just to the final system of technologies working together, but also the individual component. There are also vulnerabilities associated with the interactions of the components of the system. This risk is further compounded by a lack of assured supply chain for key technologies in this area. Australia is building partnerships with key allies in this area to leverage our research capability and create a trusted supply chain.

Drone swarms have the potential to revolutionise military operations, for both positive and negative outcomes, for example through the ability to respond as part of routine surveillance operations. This capability however has the potential for severe negative outcomes if left unchecked and international like-minds are working towards appropriate frameworks to govern military swarms, and while allied development may be constrained by ethical considerations, other countries or non-state actors, may not have the same constraints.

These systems offer opportunities across multiple sectors to improve productivity and safety; innovative legal and ethical frameworks and standards to adjudicate human-machine decision making and to manage safety and utility will be required to maximise their potential.

Research impact (RI)

China has the highest research impact, with Australia ranked 9th. Total volume of published research has increased at around 21% p.a. over the 5 year period 2016–2020, with 19% of research involving international collaboration.

  1. China - 30540
  2. USA - 20412
  3. UK - 6966
  4. Singapore - 6091
  5. France - 6089
  1. Australia - 5143

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

Australia is ranked 8th for relative venture capital (VC) investment for drones and collaborative robotics. Investment in this area has been growing at 10% p.a. since 2016.

  1. USA
  2. China
  3. Israel
  4. Switzerland
  5. France
  1. Australia

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 number of patents filed annually in this field has increased by 3% p.a. from 2015 to 2019. Most patents for this technology were filed by Chinese applicants or inventors, Australia ranks 13th.

  1. China - 7005
  2. USA - 4107
  3. R. of Korea - 2812
  4. Taiwan - 593
  5. Germany - 559
  1. Australia - 92

Research institutions - international

The National University of Singapore has the highest research impact among international institutions. China, which has the highest overall research impact, has 6 institutions in the top 10 international institutions.

Rank Top International Institution Research Impact
1 National University of Singapore | Singapore 4797
2 Beihang University | China 3051
3 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University | United States 2327
4 Tsinghua University | China 1949
5 Southeast University, Nanjing | China 1863
6 Université Paris-Saclay | France 1778
7 Chinese Academy of Sciences | China 1721
8 Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics | China 1628
9 French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) | France 1359
10 Northwestern Polytechnical University Xian | China 1316

Research institutions - Australia

Within Australia, the University of New South Wales has the highest research impact and is ranked 11th internationally. Australia has 4 institutes in the international top 50 – the University of Sydney is 18th, Queensland University of Technology 43rd and University of Technology of Sydney 47th.

Rank Top Australian Institution Research Impact
1 University of New South Wales 1216
2 University of Sydney 969
3 Queensland University of Technology 533
4 University of Technology Sydney 515
5 CSIRO 475
6 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University 438
7 Monash University 214
8 Deakin University 130
9 University of South Australia 115
10 Australian National University 91

Patents - Australia

Top 3 Australian Patent Applicants Patent Families
ORBITAL AUSTRALIA 8
DEFENDTEX 2
BHP 2

Patents filed by Australian businesses, 2015–2019.