‘Bring me your problems’
At the recent Knowledge Cities Summit hosted by the City of Melbourne, Professor Steven Prawer joined a group of University of Melbourne academics to explain and discuss what it means to be ‘an engaged university’. In simple terms, he defined this as harnessing research expertise to provide answers to the big questions facing today’s society. And he encapsulated the proposition with the entreaty ‘Bring me your problems’.
Professor Prawer, who is director of the Melbourne Materials Institute, leads the University’s partnership with Better Place Australia to explore the social, political and environmental impacts of the mass adoption of electric vehicles. He is also the interim director of the newly established Defence Science Institute (DSI), an initiative developed by the partnership between the University of Melbourne and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO). The impetus behind the establishment of the DSI was to create greater capability and synergies in Australian defence research and future-proof defence capabilities.
“It is energising to be posed important, difficult real-life problems,” says Professor Prawer. “And immensely satisfying to resolve these problems using the best thinking the University has to offer.”
In relation to electric vehicles, a major problem preventing mass uptake lies with achieving a battery charge that will take a car at least as far as one fuelled by a full tank of petrol. The transformative change lies with overcoming people’s fears about becoming stranded on the road between charging stations by either developing batteries with significantly increased energy storage or establishing battery exchange stations where electric car owners can swap depleted batteries for newly charged ones, also installing plug-in chargers at people’s houses, workplaces, or at roadside locations.
“These are the interesting problems Evan Thornley (CEO of Better Place Australia) presented us with – how to optimise battery performance, how to use renewable resources to charge batteries, how to make batteries affordable, how to design batteries that will not only not drain existing resources, but can actually put power back into the grid,” Professor Prawer says.
“The ultimate aim, obviously, is to reduce the world’s reliance on oil and to create a workable, environmentally sustainable alternative.”
In a world where the ubiquitous fear of warfare and the injuries it inflicts – both physical and psychological – is made more acute by the speed and impact of technological advances, Professor Prawer is excited about the opportunity presented by the University of Melbourne and Defence Science and Technology Organisation partnership to work within the Defence Science Institute to ‘future-proof defence’.
“The value proposition of what we were trying to do was brought home to me when I donned a combat helmet and Kevlar vest and imagined having to run around in forty degree heat in the desert wearing such heavy gear”, says Professor Prawer.
“I was told that the average soldier on a three-day mission has to carry some eighty batteries. Surely, I thought, we can bring together innovative approaches to help lighten, literally, the soldiers’ loads.”
But according to Professor Prawer, these are only some of the complex challenges facing Australian defence forces. “How do you present information to a commander in an optimal way to enable the best decision possible in the heat of battle?” he proposes. “How can we design personal protection systems to minimise the injury to soldiers subject to the blast of a roadside bomb? Could we train a computer system to scan a scene and alert a commander of a lurking danger, that something is out of place, not quite right? Could we equip surveillance drones with radars and smart systems to avoid collisions in a crowded airspace and operate semi-autonomously?”
Professor Prawer knows that these are not problems for which there are off-the-shelf answers, but are definitely problems worth solving. And he believes that the DSI, by forming a partnership between the DSTO, the university sector, and defence industries will provide the best chance of finding innovative responses to such challenges and that the country’s defence forces will be able to deploy technologies in the field for maximum impact and benefit.
“DSTO and the universities are only two prongs of the triangle”, says Professor Prawer. “The third and crucial partner is the defence industry, both big and small.”
According to Professor Prawer, the Defence Science Institute will establish an industry partner program and an easy-to-access seed funding program that will give priority to proposals involving all three sides of the triangle.
“This will allow the defence industry to take an active role in the development of new defence capabilities,” says Professor Prawer. “Small to medium-sized defence industries will, in particular, benefit from low-cost entry-level participation in the DSI, lowering the risks associated with new projects and ideas, and enabling them to bid effectively for larger and more complex projects. In the process, this will make Victoria and Australia more internationally competitive.”
The multi-level partnership will adopt a multi-disciplinary approach to address some of the most pressing problems facing defence. This includes preparing for and recovering from biological and chemical attack, use of advanced imaging tools to study and mitigate against neuro-trauma, development of materials able to change their properties in response to changing environments, optimising propulsion and energy systems in relation to submarine and renewable battery energy technologies, use of micro radar in unmanned aircraft and submersibles, and information systems that manage and present the huge quantities of data that bombards commanders to enable them to make the best possible decisions.
The DSI so far has brought together the DSTO, the University of Melbourne, National ICT Australia (NICTA), and Bio21, all under the common banner of future-proofing defence.
“We welcome the participation of other universities, small to medium-sized enterprises, primary defence industries and others who share our vision of progress through partnership for the betterment of Australian Defence”, says Professor Prawer.
“The DSI is now open for business. It’s a very important and exciting adventure.”