Robotics in Australia: From “immature” to national priority
Robotics is becoming a field of increasingly national interest in Australia. Its government recently announced the development of the country’s first national robotics strategy, pointing at a potential for adding between 170 and 600 billion AUD per year to the economy.
For a country that has defied global growth trends in industrial robotics and seen adoption decline, the strategy gives renewed momentum to the industry, says Dr. Sue Keay, Founder and Chair of Robotics Australia Group.
“Robotics is on the public agenda in a way it hasn’t been before. We’re hoping for a change in policy direction to help us build a sustainable robotics industry and incentivize companies to adopt robots built in Australia,” said Sue Keay, who is also a member of the Government-appointed committee to help guide the strategy.
The strategy is now under development by the Australian Government after consultation with the public.
Reignited public interest in robotics
The public focus on robotics in Australia builds on efforts initiated in recent years to organize the industry and turn around declining sales figures.
Over the past decade, Australia has taken a big step back in the global rankings of robot density – a figure used to describe the level of robot adoption in the manufacturing industry of a country by the number of robots per 10,000 employees. From ranking 18th globally, Australia has since dropped to 35th place. The main reason, Sue Keay says, is the recent closure of the automotive industry in Australia that drew most robot installations in the country. The last Australian car manufacturing plant closed in 2017.
When a group of industry people came together to take stock of the situation and map out the robotics industryin 2018, they made a harsh discovery:
“We spoke to a lot of end-users, and the overwhelming feedback was that Australia’s robotics industry was immature, fragmented, and invisible. People didn’t realize we built robots in Australia,” said Sue Keay, who founded Robotics Australia Group to raise the visibility of the industry after this discovery.
Australia strong in ‘field robotics’
As it turned out, robotics is playing a substantial role in Australia’s economy according to Sue Keay. Robotics Australia Group has identified a total of more than 1,000 companies with ‘robotics capabilities’ that employ more than 50,000 people and are worth more than 18 billion AUD to the Australian economy, she says.
Many of these companies, however, aren’t serving the manufacturing industry, which is normally known for being the main robot user in other markets. Rather, the Australian robotics industry’s main strength lies in so-called “field robots”, Sue Keay says. These include robots used by other sectors of large significance to the Australian economy such as mining, construction, agriculture, transport, and defense.
“Australia is a huge country with few people, extreme environmental conditions, and a lot of infrastructure to maintain, so we had to develop a capability in field robotics,” she says and elaborates:
“We had to get good at building robust outdoor robotics and associated sensor technologies that can solve the ‘distance challenge’ with little power and communication possibilities, such as in mine sites or underwater.”
Examples of field robots developed in Australia include underwater robots for offshore; outdoor mobile robots posing as live shooting targets for soldier training; all-terrain mobile robots for tactical police response; swarms of robots for agriculture; and many others.
Challenges for robotics in Australia
Despite Australia’s advances in field robotics, its industry is lacking in several aspects to the more mature markets according to Sue Keay.
For one, the low robot density in the manufacturing industry means that the experiences and capabilities for implementing and integrating robot technologies are limited.
“We don’t have an integration market yet. One of the reasons the industry is so immature is that the startups must do everything themselves: build the technology, integrate it, educate customers, and so on. It’s tough,” says Sue Keay.
Also, the robotics industry is lacking both the talent and capital for expanding its global footprint, she says. Robotics companies in Australia attracted 222 million USD in venture capital investments during 2018-22 according to data from Dealroom. This puts Australia ahead of Italy (139 million USD), at about the same level as Denmark (234 million USD), and behind the UK (1.8 billion USD), Germany (2 billion USD), China (10 billion USD), and the US (40 billion USD).
“Access to capital is the number one concern among robotics companies in Australia. They’re facing competition from very well-funded startups from the US and other countries and need more capital to scale and compete. Access to capital is so much lower than our peer nations that we’re getting to a crossroads,” says Sue Keay.
Robotics Australia Group has suggested several initiatives for the upcoming national robotics strategy to increase access to capital, including tax incentives for staff training; tax offsets for robot purchases; long-term loans for robotic projects; and more.
“The Australian robotics industry is already exporting technology, and hopefully we can speed that up and help the success rate of our companies with the new focus from the Government,” Sue Keay concludes.