Flat White

Send in the drones

7 May 2017

10:54 AM

7 May 2017

10:54 AM

On a crisp Canberra autumn morning last week scientists and technical experts from the CSIRO, the University of New South Wales’ Australian Defence Force Academy, the ANU and defence-related companies and think tanks gathered in the Shine Dome to hear Dr Roger Neill from Defence Industry & Innovation’s Science Strategy and Program Division, explain ‘Grand Challenges’, the new program launched for the first time in Australia to counter what Defence terms Improvised Threats.

‘Grand Challenges’ is a call to arms to Australian industries, scientists, think tanks, industry growth centres and small-to-medium enterprises to help protect our national security and interests at home and abroad via Grand Challenges, a 1.6 billion program designed to tackle tough security problems through innovative approaches using cross-disciplinary research across institutional and national boundaries.

The US Government’s Defence Advanced Regional Project Agency has supported a consortium of universities and research bodies to build a network of computers to exchange information; the internet and world wide web were originally DARPA-inspired innovations.

‘Grand Challenges’ has adapted the DARPA design, fitted it to Australian circumstances and the Department is now eager to welcome tech-head suggestions to counter security threats.

The program’s first urgent challenge has been identified as the need to counter improvised threats without casualties that have claimed the lives of Australian soldiers on operations and threaten the safety of ordinary citizens in the community.


According to Dr Neill, six key drivers now shape our security environment: our Defence landscape is shifting, with terrorism identified as a threat at home and abroad, the fragility of many regional States as well as regional military modernisation and shifts in the global power balance, “no longer just the two big guys,” as Neill puts it and even climatic change that may trigger security threats to Australia by both State and non-State parties.

These threats are not limited to the improvised explosive devices that have killed and maimed personnel serving in Afghanistan and the Middle East but future threats could include chemical, biological and nuclear hazards on land, from the air or by sea, delivered in increasingly sophisticated ways that make them more effective, and more difficult to detect and counter.

Sending in drones is one way threats – suicide bombers, chemical warfare, protecting Australian soldiers in hostile terrain, among other scenarios- can be countered.

These threats are not limited to the Improvised Explosive devices (IEds) that have killed and maimed personnel serving in Afghanistan and the Middle East but future threats could include chemical, biological and nuclear hazards on land, from the air or by sea, delivered in increasingly sophisticated ways that make them more effective, and more difficult to detect and counter.

Sending in drones is one way threats can be countered. The Grand Challenges team outlined two scenarios, one encompassing the civilian environment the other a combat environment.

The civilian scenario sees a Australian Navy ship visiting port while an event takes place (think of the recent Battle of the Coral Sea commemorations), making it imperative to ensure both the safety of the ship and crew, as well as those attending the event or living in the port, and using methods that are safe and not harmful to people or dwellings.

In scenario two, Australian soldiers working in a foreign country, against combatants using guerrilla tactics, need to move from their safe military base into unsecured territory, either on foot or in vehicles on roads, dry creek beds or open country. The enemy might use improvised threat devices, explosives, chemicals or biological agents, and these may be buried, hidden in the ground or in cars, motorbikes or vans.

“The Americans have been doing this for years now, but when we designed our Grand Challenge, we didn’t know how many responses, if any, we’d receive. We’ve had over 500 responses for this Grand Challenge,” a gratified Dr Neill told the Spectator adding that the government has recognised that investing in future defence capabilities and innovative thinking isn’t enough, there must be a continuous pipeline of capabilities, channelled through the new innovation portal, a quick link website that’s home to Defence innovation priorities and information on how to submit proposals and contract framework.

Australia’s first Grand Challenge will be to counter improvised threats that are constantly evolving, endangering the lives of Australians at home and overseas.

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