Boeing is launching a huge autonomous drone research project in Australia

Boeing/supplied One of the remotely piloted aircraft developed by Boeing to inspect gas projects in Queensland.
  • Boeing is building its largest autonomous vehicle program outside of the US in Queensland.
  • The three-year project covers land, sea and air projects for both civil and defence purposes.
  • It will create 131 jobs and has an opportunity for local small-to-medium tech companies to be involved.

Aerospace giant Boeing is building its largest autonomous vehicle program outside of the US in Queensland as part of a deal with the state government.

The three-year project covers land, sea and air projects for both civil and defence purposes.

Boeing Vice President and General Manager Autonomous Systems, Chris Raymond, said the Queensland operation, which will create 131 jobs, was a significant investment.

“We know in the future autonomy is going to enter our personal lives, it’s going to enter our professional products, it’s going to enter security and commercial ways of doing things,” Raymond said.

“We have a very global effort going on at Boeing because autonomy and its associated technical elements around machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to continue to advance.

“As autonomy becomes increasingly common, Boeing will continue to pioneer autonomous technologies from seabed to space.”

The aeronautics company already has a long track record in the region, having launched a trial of remotely piloted aircrafts to inspect gas wells, pipelines and processing plants for the Shell-owned Queensland Gas Company is 2014, as well as monitoring the Great Barrier Reef via an unmanned solar-powered unmanned surface vehicle produced by Boeing subsidiary Liquid Robotics.

Shane Arnott, Director of Boeing’s Phantom Works International, said Queensland was chosen because of existing Boeing facilities, as well as the local tech ecosystem and a “progressive airspace regulator”.

“It’s a great environment to run fast in a domain that is running at light speed,” he said.

“This isn’t just about the technology, it’s about working with the regulators too. We can’t field products that solve products without making sure they are safe and acceptable.”

The focus of the Australia team will be around developing systems for existing platforms to ensure they can function autonomously.

Arnott says they’ll “create the ‘voice’, if you will, for the systems to talk to each other – a combination of software and communications”, which he calls “brain-on-board” technology.

He says there’s a great opportunity for local small-to-medium tech companies to be involved working with Boeing on test and evaluation systems, communication systems and also artificial intelligence.

“Our program will complement the work undertaken by the Trusted Autonomous Systems Defence Cooperative Research Centre, taking research outcomes and developing them into exportable commercial products for the global autonomous market,” he said.

The Australian developments will also be used in Echo Voyager, Boeing’s 50 ton, 50 foot deep sea unmanned and fully autonomous submarine.

At a basic level, the work is primarily focused on the safety of autonomous vehicles — stopping them crashing into other things and each other.

And the challenge for Boeing, along with everyone else, in the sector, is getting regulators comfortable with the technology to allow it to operate.

Chris Raymond says Queensland’s wide open spaces are a good place to “prove out the systems to add confidence”.

But how long it will take before we start seeing autonomous vehicles in the sky and sea is “a little hard to predict”, he says.

“There’s so much investment being put into autonomous mobility… so many people working on how to deliver these things autonomously that they’re all going to come into this regulatory space. Some of these systems are starting to need us to advance the regulatory environment”.

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