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20 December 2021 5 min read

[Music plays and a split circle appears and photos of various CSIRO activities move through in either side of the circle and then the circle morphs into the CSIRO logo]

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Narrator: Autonomous sensors are the bridge that connects the physical and digital worlds.

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As sensor technologies evolve, a whole new world opens up, a world where technology can make reliable human like decisions based on local and global data, bringing forth new ideas for existing fields in science to be explored.

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And we are equipped to be at the forefront of this transformation.

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Through a combination of fundamental sensor research and autonomous engineering solutions, we will deliver technologies that drive innovation in areas like environmental monitoring, mining,

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agriculture, and manufacturing.

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Our Autonomous Sensors Future Science Platform will address the need to measure the most challenging Australian environmental and industrial conditions with increasing accuracy, sensitivity, traceability and resolution.

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Australia, with its unique geography, environment and industries, will be a major beneficiary of this technology’s future.

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For the mining industry, new advanced sensing systems that measure lithium in bulk ore, a feat never achieved before, will advance Australia’s opportunity to supply critical resources to global renewables and battery industries.

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Advances in autonomous Earth observations will deliver platforms and sensors to help monitor and manage Australia’s marine resources.

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New sensor research will create new tools for the biological verification of a broad range of Australian agricultural products

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including portable and autonomous sensors which can be used to track products from the farm to consumer.

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Autonomous sensor technologies will transform many markets and industries worldwide.

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An exciting new era of possibility has begun.

Music plays and the image changes to show the CSIRO logo, and text appears: CSIRO, Australia’s National Science Agency]

Autonomous sensors are the bridge that connects the physical and digital worlds. CSIRO is inventing the next generation of sensors technologies needed to unlock digital innovations that allow us to rapidly understand and predict the world around us.

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The Autonomous Sensors Future Science Platform is one of five new future science platforms or FSPs, established in 2021, bringing the total number of FSPs that CSIRO has brought online since 2016 to 16.

In the new role of Director, Dr Yulia Uvarova is quick to underscore the importance of who will be involved.

“The main point is not only developing Horizon 3 Science for different applications. It’s also about developing new capability and talent in the domain of autonomous sensors,” Dr Uvarova, a geologist by background, says.

“So we’re planning to hire and engage quite a few early career researchers and engineers. I see it as very important that we’re developing this talent for CSIRO, or for industries elsewhere.”

Creating future industries

Each of the 16 CSIRO future science platforms represents an investment which, it is hoped, will reinvent and forge industries for Australia.

And like all other future science platforms, Autonomous Sensors will be propelled by forces within and adjacent to the organisation. It is backed, for instance, by the 10 CSIRO business units.

Horizon 3 Science

The aspirations of Horizon 3 Science are many and varied; in this regard, Autonomous Sensors finds itself enmeshed with ambitions such as “science as a service”, and “CSIRO Data Ecosystem”.

The Three Horizons is a model first articulated in 2000. It promotes the idea that companies and government agencies must execute and extend their existing business models. These are classed as Horizons 1 and 2.

The driver of Horizon 3 is the need to create new capabilities, something that must coincide with the continuity of Horizons 1 and 2. Ultimately, the model prioritises innovation.

If these sound like soaring ideas for a unit that was only formed in July 2021, Dr Uvarova – who was made Director recently in October 2021 – is clear about its first priorities.

Sensors to accelerate digital decision-making

Broadly, Autonomous Sensors will accelerate the emergence of new tools to grow digital decision making within application domains, potentially multiple domains. The goal is to combine fundamental sensor research with autonomous engineering solutions.

This, in turn, is intended to provide advanced sensing and platform technologies for the domains of environmental monitoring, health monitoring, mining, agriculture and manufacturing.

More specifically, the Autonomous Sensors Future Science Platform will focus on two themes.

One is Fundamental Sensor Development, about developing sensors for different applications and industries. The other is Advanced Engineering for Autonomy.

“So basically how these sensors can be autonomous, can be deployed in harsh Australian environments, can survive those environments, and can collect data in those environments,” Dr Uvarova, who has been with CSIRO since 2012, says.

“The overall idea is that we invent something new – something that doesn’t exist at this stage. So it must be new, must be novel and innovative, and it must have multiple applications.”

The place where the Future Science Platform researchers and engineers will test and develop prototypes of sensors will take the form of a hub.

A new sensor prototyping hub

The Sensor Prototyping Hub will accelerate Horizon 3 research from the lab, to prototypes, towards potential field trials.

Like most teams worth assembling, this one will be a potent mix of skills, abilities and expertise.

Says Dr Uvarova, part of the beauty of working within a Future Science Platform is its grounding within the 10 CSIRO business units, each of which brings its own clout.

Dr Yulia Uvarova leads our Autonomous Sensors Future Science Platform (FSP)

These enhancements open up possibilities for Autonomous Sensors to build its own teams of geologists, physicists, chemists and data scientists, all playing their part in unlocking the core science challenges identified by the cohort.

What happens if the researchers find something really “out there”? 

The next step for Autonomous Sensors would be to transition the idea and develop it within the Future Science Platform, so that  business units can take it further.

From there, in theory, it could be commercialised and placed in readiness for industry uptake.

Put simply, an idea would travel up the technology readiness levels, with any maturing of the technology for a given domain happening under the guidance of a CSIRO business unit specialising in that area.

While Autonomous Sensors doesn’t consult directly with industry now, Dr Uvarova says the future science platform has a sound internal understanding of “what industry needs, or will need in five, 10 or 20 years’ time”.

Near-time technology impact

A rule in selecting projects to take on has thus far been to ask, will the technology be viable in a decade? 

The answer often comes through input from the CSIRO business units, but just as often from someone on the team of researchers.

Project selection is also done with an eye on what is happening across other parts of the scientific research landscape, and industry.

Autonomous Sensors Future Science Platform is so new that an official launch is still pending; “We’re a little tiny baby, we’re not even a toddler yet,” Dr Uvarova says.

But for many observers of the fledgling unit, the appointment of its Director will be reassuring.

Dr Uvarova’s previous role was as a Senior Principal Research Scientist and Group Leader in CSIRO Mineral Resources and the Program Leader for Data From Drilling in the MinEX CRC.

Whatever team she ends up shaping, the Director is ready to navigate this universe.

CSIRO's five new Future Science Platforms in 2021

  • Autonomous Sensors - accelerating the generation of new tools to enable growth of digital decision making applicable across multiple industries and sectors
  • Quantum Technologies - growing quantum technology skills and capabilities to translate research into real world solutions for materials discovery, precision healthcare, defence, and digital security and communications 
  • Microbiome - harnessing the functionality of microorganisms to solve challenges such as diet and gut health, plant diseases and food safety
  • Collaborative Intelligence - developing the science that enables human intelligence and technology to work harmoniously together across multiple domains, exceeding the performance of using either alone
  • Valuing Sustainability - enabling science that promotes sustainability decisions across supply chains that lead to positive outcomes for land, water, biodiversity and people

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