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IN DETAIL: Elbit’s Centre of Excellence teams with RMIT University

TOP: An RAN LCVP from HMAS Choules evacuates householders from Mallacoota during the 2019-20 bush fires. ABOVE: ELSA CEO Paul McLachlan (left), Minister for Industry Recovery Martin Pakula MP and CoE manager Andrew Ballard examine a UAV at the CoE launch. Photo: ELSA

A new research centre which has just opened in Port Melbourne has showcased its first fruits with a two-year partnership between RMIT University and Elbit Systems of Australia to tackle natural disasters. 

Gregor Ferguson

Elbit Systems of Australia, or ELSA, announced in February 2021 that it was planning to open its new Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Human-Machine Teaming and Artificial Intelligence with co-investment by Invest Victoria. This was partly in response to the devastation caused by the wild fires that raged across eastern Australia in 2019-2020, according to the former soldier who now runs ELSA, Major General (retired) Paul Mclachlan, AO, CSC.

The new CoE will build on ELSA’s previous work in digitising the Australian Army’s operations in Project LAND 200 as well as the Israeli parent company’s work on digitisation, autonomy and AI.  While it will be a secure portal for the transfer of technology from Israel, the more important role for the CoE will be the development of sovereign Australian Intellectual Property (IP) focussed on the needs of Defence, the homeland security eco-system and all of Australia’s State-level emergency services.

The audience at the opening ceremony included senior representatives from the RAAF, Army, DST Group and CASG, underlining the point that while the CoE’s launch projects address the needs of the emergency services, this same technology has multiple military applications as well – Elbit is a defence company, after all.

That said, analysis after the wild fires identified areas where technology can help civilian agencies react faster and with better situational awareness – and across State and Territory boundaries, where different agencies have different command and communications systems that don’t talk to each other. Technology can make a significant impact at the senior command and control level and this is where the COE will focus its efforts.

“Our partnership with RMIT University demonstrates that we are determined to create solutions to deal with the complex problems that emergency management organisations face during natural disasters,” said McLachlan, who also served as a Commander of the Operation Queensland Flood Assist taskforce in 2011 and later as Head of Land Systems Division at CASG, and then Commander of the Army’s Deployable Joint Force HQ.

“The projects will research how to use drones to count the number of people in designated evacuation zones, then to co-ordinate and communicate the most efficient evacuation routes to everyone in the zone, as well as monitoring the area to ensure that everyone has been accounted for.”

The CoE’s partner in these projects is RMIT University’s Centre for Industrial AI Research and Innovation whose Director, Professor John Thangarajah, said, “Research translation is what RMIT is about [and] I’m very excited to bring AI experts from RMIT.” The university will assign two Ph.D researchers to the CoE initially, but this figure will grow as more staff from both RMIT and the CoE join the project.

The partnership with ELSA aims “to really advance the state of the art in emergency management and computer vision,” he added. “We are determined to break new ground for emergency services and government agencies to ensure the safety of those who are caught in distressing circumstances that sadly we are all becoming familiar with after recent fires and floods.”

Anybody who lived through those bushfires will remember the footage of groups of frequently distraught and disoriented people making a hurried escape from the flames. The death toll of 34, though remarkably small considering the circumstances, is grim testimony to the violence and speed of the fires and of the challenges facing first responders in fighting them and dealing with displaced populations.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, released in October 2020, clearly recommended there was a need to improve evacuation planning: “Effective national coordination will be a critical capability in managing natural disasters on a national scale or with national consequences. Arrangements need to be clear, robust and accountable,” the report says.

“Our first R&D agreement with RMIT will see research into the use of on-board artificial intelligence and sensor capabilities of drones to better understand and coordinate chaotic evacuation situations,” said McLachlan.

Professor Thangarajah said that under extreme conditions such as a wild fire, crowd monitoring is a real challenge – and even more so in an urban environment. “We’re looking forward to taking that information into agent-based modelling and simulating what might happen in emergencies, analyse what’s happening.” Ultimately, he said, the goal is better outcomes for first responders.

“Our hope is that today marks the start of a long partnership between ELSA, RMIT, the Victorian government, the ADF and emergency management stakeholders and that the work done gets brilliant technology into the hands of our service personnel and first responders so that they can do their jobs better, faster and safer,” said McLachlan.

“We also hope that it results in the consideration and application of technology developed primarily for military purposes across emergency management and other industry sectors in Australia,” he added, saying that it’s rare for emergency management organisations to get access to R&D funding – most of the available money goes to frontline appliances and people.

The CoE was officially opened on 6 June by Victorian Minister for Trade and Minister for Industry Support and Recovery, Martin Pakula MP, who noted that it is the first of its kind outside Israel and the USA. “It adds to the growing number of universities, research organisations and businesses in Victoria’s growing defence sector and many of them are located here at Fishermans Bend.

“This area has long been a centre of innovation,” he added, pointing out that Invest Victoria is supporting multiple Centres of Excellence across different sectors: “They help boost engineering capability and manufacturing expertise and they make Victoria a very attractive place for global firms to invest and expand.”

Victoria’s ambitions intersect with those of the federal Department of Defence whose 2016 White Paper and 2020 Force Structure Plan both emphasise the importance of sovereign industry capability development in Australia. The focus is on R&D, innovation and the development of a resilient and competitive defence industry sector that can act as a pillar of a stronger national economy.

The States have been working towards this goal for much longer than the federal government and Victoria is positioning itself to win as much of the $270 billions-worth of acquisition spending Defence has scheduled for the coming few years.

In the defence sector specifically, Minister Pakula told the audience at Port Melbourne, Victoria contributes 40% of all the defence R&D undertaken in Australia, double that of the next State. The defence sector contributes $8 billion a year to Victoria’s Gross State Product (GSP) with 6,300 businesses supporting 36,000 jobs across the manufacturing sector and the wider Australian defence Organisation.

The Victorian government has just confirmed it will invest $1.5 million in the Defence Science Institute, a further $2.6 million in defence industry workforce training and more than $100 million in industry development funding across multiple sectors, many of which, such as advanced manufacturing, have a direct bearing on the health of the defence sector.

“That’s why we’re continuing to invest in that R&D, commercialisation and advanced manufacturing – all of that is crucial to ensuring that Victorian have high quality, well paid secure jobs in a really important sector.”

So the CoE came along at the right time. While the timing of its establishment was coincidental, the CoE’s ability to develop Australian-owned IP has helped ELSA’s drive under McLachlan’s leadership to become a truly sovereign Australian company.

One of the secrets of successful innovation is collaboration between players and stakeholders on R&D and innovation outcomes, McLachlan said.

“Israel is well known for its innovation and its extensive R&D programs. ELSA is trying to continue this philosophy of innovation in Australia. The successful path to transforming ideas into valuable and useable technology quickly involves all parties coming together – and deliberately choosing the middle pathway of value to all and perfection to none. This is genuinely the philosophy and approach that we would love to see thrive in this CoE.”

Through the CoE the company will work with Victorian universities and research organisations to foster collaboration within the innovation ecosystem. It will also partner with local startups and SMEs that have got something to offer, he added. It plans to boost commercialisation of new Australian developed technologies in autonomous systems, machine vision, robotics, industrial internet of things networks, and augmented and virtual reality.

The initial CoE staff headcount is barely half a dozen, but this will grow sharply over the remainder of the calendar year: A second academic joint project and accompanying partnership is in the works with another leading Victorian university and will be finalised in the latter part of this year. The CoE will also be touring a range of academic institutions in the next two months, to explore even more partnerships and project opportunities. And the Centre is in discussion with some as-yet-unnamed global technology giants for technical and strategic partnerships which ELSA hopes to announce in the coming months.

The important thing is that this work isn’t confined solely to emergency response. All of the AI and autonomous systems technology on display at the opening of the CoE has military applications as well.

An important future opportunity for ELSA and the CoE, given the company’s recent travails over the Army’s Battlespace Management System (BMS) in early phases of Project LAND 200, will be the competition for Phase 3 of LAND 200 for which ELSA will bid. This is worth an estimated $2 billion and is intended to complete the transformation of the Army’s battlefield command system from paper-based to fully digital. This is still described by Army leaders as the service’s highest priority.

The new CoE, which is understood to already embody most of what ELSA will offer the Army in Ph.3, provides an opportunity to be more disruptive, Mclachlan told EX2. It provides both an R&D hub and a Systems Integration Laboratory (SIL) where the company can develop and then demonstrate some genuinely disruptive command and control capabilities.

As a former senior operational commander in the ADF he is passionate about delivering capability that provides a combat edge to a small defence force. As a former Head of CASG’s Land Systems Division he also learned to be wary of companies peddling expensive solutions that often don’t bear close scrutiny.

The CoE provides an opportunity to assess the capabilities of several Australian SMEs, explore how these can be integrated into the company’s future combat system and then showcase them to potential users.

“What we want is to show Defence an unconstrained innovation space. We’ve got some really good ideas and capabilities and we aim to be able to fully demonstrate those.” Not as vapour ware, he adds, but a demonstration of real capability, delivered by real equipment.

The agreement with RMIT is a first step in that direction with a longer journey ahead.

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