In May 2019, the University of Sydney Nano Institute and the RAAF launched a scientific collaboration focused on developing nano-scale sensing technology and artificial intelligence-driven (AI) fusion across networks of sensors.
For the lay person, this means developing advanced capabilities to enable more sensors to see further more precisely, working in tandem with other sensors - at a micro scale. And with the reams of data collected, AI is incorporated to make sense of it all and provide commanders with a more accurate and detailed picture of the domain they’re monitoring.
The tiny sensors will assess physical, chemical, biological, acoustic and electromagnetic environments. Importantly, because the sensing chips use photons – particles of light – they cannot be affected by electromagnetic fields in the way that electronic chips can be. The massive reduction in size, weight and power of these thumbnail-sized photonic chips is a game-changer, allowing them to be easily fitted onto aircraft, satellites and vehicles.
The driving force behind this collaboration is Group Captain Jerome Reid, of RAAF’s Plan Jericho initiative. Plan Jericho is nimble and progressive, enabling RAAF to proactively develop new technologies to maintain Australia’s air combat advantage, in a world where technology is morphing rapidly, leaving laggards behind.
GPCPT Reid’s partner and enabler in this effort is the director of Sydney Nano, Professor Ben Eggleton. I toured the facility and later sat down with Prof Eggleton to discuss this exciting new initiative at the University of Sydney.
Prof Eggleton said the project’s ultimate aim is about providing Defence with “more efficient decision making capabilities, enhanced situational awareness, and disruptive technology.” With advances in technology, the sheer amounts of data collected is increasing exponentially: “What we don’t want to see is engineers staring at screens, we want this automated,” he said.
Importantly, the program itself is transformative with a focus on collaboration and bringing multiple cross-disciplined researchers together whether they originated from a defence background or not. As such Associate Professor Cara Wrigley from the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning has been appointed the Jericho Chair of Design Innovation. A/Prof Wrigley’s world-leading design methodologies has been crucial to the project. Prof Eggleton explained that “we’re not the old school academics that just sit within their silos, we’re very much about bringing researchers together across disciplines to address the most important problems.”
Internet of Defence Things
As part of the ADF’s push into advanced technology development via DST Group, the Internet of Defence Things has been seen to present significant opportunities.
Size, weight and power have always concerned the ADF, particularly the RAAF. With the expansion of technology capabilities and the many “things” (sensors, systems, data sources) that come along with that, there is a need to make sense of it all, coordinate it and then be able to act on the vast quantities of information and data collected.
“When I fuse those sensors together, my pattern of recognition, which is all machine learning is, is much more powerful. Now I can classify that behaviour and I can give my commander a text instruction. That’s what sensor fusion is all about,” Prof Eggleton said.
The partnership between Plan Jericho and Sydney Nano could provide a blue print for future collaborative efforts between the ADF and our academic institutions. No doubt security issues need to be actively addressed, in consultation with Defence, right across our university sector. But there are no reasons why this cannot be achieved and further defence related collaborations undertaken.
Note: Lincoln Parker works for the NSW Defence Innovation Network (an initiative of the NSW Government, Defence Science & Technology Group and seven NSW universities). The author’s views are his own.