Next-gen technologies get down to Robo-business

It doesn't need to be a case of 'us vs them' - robots actually help humans perform better. Image - Franz Steiner www.webneel.com

It doesn’t need to be a case of ‘us vs them’ – robots actually help humans perform better. Image – Franz Steiner http://www.webneel.com

By Emily Lehmann 

A world in which robots and humans live side-by-side is no longer just stuff dreamed up in fantastical sci-fi movies (thank you very much James Cameron). ‘Cos if we’re talking about industry, the smart machine era is already here.

Next-gen technologies like self-driving vehicles, remote augmented reality and fully-autonomous robots are now being used to help companies work better, from underground mines to the factory floor.

The latest and greatest in the ‘bots biz was all the talk last week at RoboBusiness 2014, where we took the opportunity to share our vision for the world of intelligent industry.

We want to create an environment where man and machine can work safely and productively side-by-side. To help us achieve this, we’ve developed Guardian technologies: a suite of intelligent, lightweight assistive robots that will increase the productivity and global competitiveness of manufacturing firms.

The robots include Guardian angel, mentor, helper and worker technologies, which all play their own important and unique role in assisting – but not replacing – people in the workplace.

For instance, Guardians can be used to hold or move heavy, awkward items, or be deployed in places not considered safe for humans to perform tasks – all while a person controls them remotely. Check out this video to see how they work:

We have some exciting news around one of our clever Guardian technologies, Zebedee, which is about to be enhanced with new features and improvements.

Zebedee is our leading handheld 3D laser mapping technology and the next generation version will allow manufacturers to create faster and more accurate 3D simulations of their factory production lines.

We’re also about to start a $2 million research and development partnership with UK-based start-up GeoSLAM on the developments to make this happen. You can read more about this on the IT Wire.

 


A Nickel for your vote

Last week we brought you bees with backpacks… but this week we’re bringing nickel back.

Please, don’t be scared – we’re not talking about that band. Instead, another of our awesome research collaborations – the Direct Nickel process – has been nominated for an award in The Australian’s Innovation Challenge. The project, which has the potential to unlock 70 per cent of the world’s nickel supply and provide an enormous boost to the Australian economy, is up for a gong in the Challenge’s Energy and Minerals category.

And again, we’re asking you to #voteCSIRO

So why do we think this deserves your vote? Well, ask any metallurgist and they will tell you: nickel is a versatile and important metal, famous for giving stainless steel its strength. In fact, nickel is used in hundreds of thousands of products: from nuts and bolts, to cutlery and cooking pots, through to industrial equipment and jet engines.

Fiona McCarthy of Direct Nickel working at our pilot plant in Perth.

Fiona McCarthy of Direct Nickel working at our pilot plant in Perth. Image – Chad Taylor

A new processing method for extracting this in-demand resource, developed by Sydney-based company Direct Nickel, is being tested at our brand-new, $3.5 million pilot plant in Perth.

It uses recyclable nitric acid as a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective way of extracting nickel from untapped laterite reserves, which are estimated to hold more than 70 per cent of the world’s total nickel supplies. And it just so happens that we have an abundance of nickel laterites in Australia, while other sources of nickel around the world are running low.

If all goes to plan, this processing method could be ready to roll out to industry in two years’ time – and it’s predicted that it could realise a $30 billion per year Australian nickel industry.

We reckon that’s worth a vote.


Taking a measured approach to CSG

CSIRO through the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA) is undertaking a comprehensive study of methane seeps in the Surat basin.

By Tsuey Cham

Our scientists are taking to the sky above the Surat basin in south-west Queensland to answer a big question – is coal seam gas (CSG) green?

Not literally green, of course: CSG is invisible to the naked eye. What we’re actually looking to determine is the CSG industry’s greenhouse gas footprint. The industry is set to increase production in Australia in coming years, so it’s important to be able to adequately monitor current and future CSG developments and provide information that will help limit any potential environmental impact.

One way to determine the CSG industry’s greenhouse gas footprint is by measuring methane seeps. Methane seeps occur naturally from underground, as well as in soils, swamps and rivers. Another key component is measuring fugitive methane – methane that leaks from CSG well heads, pipes and other infrastructure.  Initial findings show that fugitive methane emissions are lower in Australia than the US.

In south-west Queensland, the Surat basin is where CSG activities are in full swing, with its network of production wells, pipelines, access tracks and warning signs. With CSG development in the basin increasing over the next few years, we are trying to establish the amount – and source – of methane emissions now,  so that in the future we can determine what is attributable to natural sources, and what is attributable to CSG activity.

Taking CSG measurements.

A four wheel drive-mounted methane detector, with onlookers.

To do this, our scientist are using airborne sensors aboard helicopters to measure natural methane emissions. With this data in hand, they then calibrate and validate it with land-based sensors to identify how much methane naturally occurs from the ground.

Findings from this research will provide a methane emissions data set that can be used to compare against changes in methane emission as CSG production increases; and will add to the bigger picture of assessing the industry’s whole-of-life-cycle greenhouse gas footprint.

For more information, visit GISERA or our website.


Voting in swarms is all the buzz

By Emily Lehmann

There’s been a buzz around town about our bee research this year, and for good reason.

In a world first, we’ve been microchipping thousands of bees with tiny sensors in Australia and South America to monitor their activity and the way they interact with the environment.

Bee with backpack/

A bee. With a backpack. What of it?

We’ve called this ‘swarm sensing’ and it could help gather the information we need to find a solution to the mysterious and devastating decline of bees around the world.

While we’ve been buzzily strapping these tiny sensors on bees in the Amazon in collaboration with Vale Institute of Technology, there has been a swarm of attention around our work back home.

Swarm sensing hit the polls earlier this week, as one of five finalists in The Australian Innovation Challenge’s category for Environment, Agriculture and Food. And, it’s up to the people – that means you – to decide which one of these innovations deserves to win $5000.

Bee hive

These guys are an important link in the global food chain – and they need our help!

Now, if cute honey bees wearing mini, colour-coordinated ‘backpacks’, isn’t enough to sway your vote, then we’ve gathered a few hot facts about why this work is so critical to get you over the line:

  1. Around one third of the food we eat relies on bees for pollination. If bees are in danger, so is our global food supply.
  1. By aiding agriculture, honey bees earn an estimated $4-6 billion for Australia every year.
  1. Wild honey bee populations are dropping drastically or vanishing all together around the world. There are two major problems causing their decline: the varroa mite and the little understood Colony Collapse Disorder
  1. While there is a real risk, bees in Australia have not been affected by the Varroa mite or Colony Collapse Disorder.
  1. Parasites, pollution and pesticides are potential factors in the decline of honey bee populations.

To vote CSIRO, visit The Australian Innovation Challenge article and select ‘swarm sensing’ in the poll at the bottom of the page. Go on, #voteCSIRO and do it for the bees!


Managing water across borders

Koshi River in Nepal

Koshi River in Nepal. Image by Amy North

As World Water Week draws to a close, we want to tell you about a water management project we’re involved with in the developing world.

The Koshi River basin covers some of the poorest parts of China, India and Nepal. The river stretches more than 700km, from China in the north, down through Nepal and across the Himalayas, and finally feeds into the Ganges River. Millions of people live in the region – many of them in flood-prone areas – and rely on the river and the fertile floodplain for their livelihoods.

We’re helping to manage the river better and improve the circumstances of the people living there.

The area is subject to floods, droughts landslides and flows of debris. Erosion also leads to heavy sedimentation, and rivers have been known to change their course.

NASA image showing course change

This NASA satellite image shows a change of the Koshi River’s course.

The effects of climate change aren’t helping, either. Glaciers in the upper reaches of the Basin are melting, bringing water and sediments down to the plains. The people of the Koshi River Basin are in an increasingly vulnerable situation. The impacts of climate change are disturbing water supply and agricultural production. Adding more pressure, the demand for energy and food production is rising.

Raising the stakes even higher, the Koshi Basin also has areas of significant biodiversity, including a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Australian Aid, we’re working with partners including the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the International Water Management Institute and eWater  to develop an integrated modelling framework for the entire basin. We’re helping to develop water balance models that capture the relationship between climate (both rainfall and temperature) and stream-flow (and flood risk) in the Koshi River Basin.

We’re also working on characterising the seasonality and variability of stream flow, and, if possible, the expected trends in stream-flow. We’ll also develop techniques for understanding the likelihood of particular stream-flow estimates.

We aim to use the research and knowledge gained from these projects to allow a regionally coordinated approach to developing and managing the Koshi Basin’s water resources. The people of the area, and the environment, should both benefit.


Our solar team sets a hot and steamy world record

The run of sunny weather we’ve had in south-eastern Australia over the last few weeks has been breaking quite a few records – and not just on the weather charts.

A team of solar thermal engineers and scientists at our Energy Centre in Newcastle have used the ample sunlight flooding their solar fields to create what’s called ‘supercritical’ steam – an ultra-hot, ultra-pressurised steam that’s used to drive the world’s most advanced power plant turbines – at the highest levels of temperature and pressure EVER recorded with solar power.

Heliostats.

The heliostat array, as viewed from Solar Tower 2.

They used heat from the sun, reflected off a field of heliostats (or mirrors) and concentrated onto a central receiver point to create the steam at these supercritical levels. The achievement is being described in the same terms as breaking the sound barrier, so impressive are its possible implications for solar thermal technology.

So what is it exactly that these Chuck Yaegers of the solar world have gone and done?

Put simply, the temperature of the steam they created (570° C) is about twice the maximum heat of your kitchen oven – or around the point where aluminium alloy would start melting. And the accompanying pressure (23.5 megapascals) is about 100 times as high as the pressure in your car tyres, or roughly what you’d experience if you were about 2 kilometres under the surface of the ocean.

Solar thermal tower.

The solar thermal tower in action: check out the steam being generated.

That’s all impressive in itself. But when you take into consideration that this is the first time solar power has ever been used to create these ‘supercritical’ levels on this scale – traditionally only ever reached using the burning of fossil fuels – the real worth of this achievement begins to sink in.

Solar thermal, or concentrating solar power (CSP) power plants have traditionally only ever operated at ‘subcritical’ levels, meaning they could not match the efficiency or output of the world’s most state of the art fossil fuel power plants.

How a solar thermal power plant works.

How a supercritical solar thermal power plant would work.

Enter our team and their Advanced Solar Steam Receiver Project. To prove that solar thermal technology can match it with the best fossil fuel systems, they developed a fully automated control system which predicts the heat delivered from every mirror (or heliostat), allowing them to achieve maximum heat transfer, without overheating and fatiguing the receiver. With this amount of control, they were able to accurately recreate the temperature and pressures needed for supercritical success.

So instead of relying on burning coal to produce supercritical steam, this method demonstrates that the power plants of the future could be using the zero emission energy of the sun to reach peak efficiency levels – and at a cheaper price.

While the technology may be a fair way off commercial development, this achievement is a big step in paving the way for a low cost, low emission energy future.

 The $5.68 million research program is supported by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and is part of a broader collaboration with Abengoa Solar, the largest supplier of solar thermal electricity in the world. 

For media inquiries, contact Nick Kachel on (02) 4960 6270 or nicholas.kachel@csiro.au


Improving prediction of deadly Irukandji jellyfish blooms

A decades-old problem in predicting Irukandji blooms has been solved by a team of our scientists, and the results could directly benefit northern Australia’s community and its tourism industry.

Last year we wrote about a new Irukandji forecasting system that Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin and her team were testing in northern Queensland.

The team were looking to prove a link between Irukandji blooms and weather conditions, based on a hindcast of previous Irukandji stings and correlating weather records, so that they could accurately predict future blooms.

Irukandji jellyfish.

Carukia barnesi, the so-called ‘common Irukandji’, taken in sampling nets at Palm Cove near Cairns. Credit: Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin.

In a paper published today in the Journal of the Royal Society, Lisa-ann and her team have presented their findings, which demonstrate a clear link between Irukandji blooms and trade winds – or lack thereof.

Says Lisa-ann, “We know that Irukandji blooms generally co-occur with blooms of another invertebrate, called salps. We also know that salp blooms are triggered by upwelling, which in northern Queensland is driven by subsidence of trade winds. Sure enough, when we investigated we found a clear connection between recorded Irukandji ‘sting days’ and days when there was little to no trade wind present.”

Around Palm Cove, a beach near Cairns where the tests took place, the southeast trade winds are the dominant wind most of the time. These trade winds cause a net downwelling pressure that pushes the water downward and out to sea. However, when these winds begin to ease in the summer months, an upwelling occurs. It is these upwellings that Lisa-ann and her team believe transport Irukandji to the top of the water column – and on towards shore.

Irukandji stings on skin.

The subtle marks of an Irukandji sting belie their deadly potency. Credit: Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin.

Finding this elusive key to Irukandji bloom prediction has been a long process.

“More than 70 years worth of work has gone into trying to accurately predict Irukandji blooms, and I myself spent 18 years attempting to establish a link,” says Lisa-ann

“It wasn’t until I came to CSIRO and collaborated with my co-authors, who are ecological and oceanographic specialists, that we made the connection.”

This early warning system could potentially allow individuals, communities, councils and governments, as well as other marine industries, to know about Irukandji blooms up to a week in advance. By being able to predict Irukandji blooms, we can reduce the direct threat to ocean-goers by closing beaches, and also reduce anxieties and uncertainties associated with areas known for Irukandji stings.

Beach closure due to Irukandji.

A beach closure at Palm Cove due to an Irukandji bloom. Credit: Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin.

Lisa-ann says this study is just the first step. Further refinements and testing mean that we could provide greater certainty in prediction, and further reduce the rate of Irukandji stings. The system also has the potential to be rolled out at a national and international level.

“However, we must reiterate that this forecasting system is not a miracle cure for Irukandji,” says Lisa-ann. “We can never remove the threat completely.

Visit our website for more information on the Irukandji forecasting system.

For media enquiries or a copy of the Royal Society paper abstract contact Kirsten Lea, +61 2 4960 6245 or kirsten.lea@csiro.au

 


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