Federation University mechatronics researchers have developed a ground surveillance robot they hope could protect rangers from armed intruders in Africa’s vast national parks.
The robot dubbed GUS, or Ground Unmanned System, was developed after Captain Luke Townsend – a specialist in counter-poaching operations in Africa – approached Dr Gayan Kahandawa to build a robot that could potentially prevent injury or death to rangers who encounter organised poaching rings and other armed intruders – including groups believed to be carrying drugs – making their way across the continent.
Captain Townsend, who is from the Latrobe Valley, has served with the Australian and British armies and has links to researchers at Federation. Dr Hasitha Hewawasam from Federation’s Centre for Smart Analytics led the development of electronics and programming for the robot.
GUS was recently presented at the recent LAND FORCES International Land Defence Exposition in Brisbane, taking out the award for Best Land Innovation in a pitch-style competition. LAND FORCES is the region’s premier International Land Defence Exposition, attracting hundreds of Australian and international companies and is supported by the Department of Defence.
The team showcased how GUS could be used as a surveillance robot.
“We presented GUS from the wildlife conservation perspective – not a military perspective – showing what the robot can do and how it could help the rangers in the fight against poaching,” Dr Kahandawa said.
“The Australian Army has taken an interest as there is potential to replace soldiers in risky areas with the robot which can do the required observation. The robot is equipped with cameras and sound detection devices that could potentially alert the Army of any unwanted presence in the vicinity.
“In Africa, rangers have been killed because those who have entered the parks have sophisticated weapons and are on motorbikes – they are equipped to survive in this environment.”
Wide-angle, zoom and thermal cameras that can detect movement have been integrated into GUS, as has a microphone that uses AI to identify the vast number of noises that can be picked up in the parks – from different animals to the firearms that are becoming increasingly common. If the microphone detects a motorbike, the cameras will verify whether it is an intruder or not.
The robot’s party piece is an integrated drone that can launch from an opening panel on the top of the robot – handy if the terrain becomes too rough for GUS to negotiate. The footage captured by the drone can be sent back to the robot, which then sends the data back to a command centre, helping keep rangers away from potentially dangerous encounters.
Dr Kahandawa said the robot was built using widely available components, and the next step was to make a more advanced model with increased capability and more AI technology. This has drawn interest from the Australian Army, which has an autonomous land force program.
“The Army is keen to get a couple of units and try these out. We’ll need to build them – the current version will not work with the Army because it wasn’t designed with the military in mind at all,” Dr Kahandawa said.
The updates will also help in Africa.
“At the moment, we have microphones in there that can detect elephant sounds, for instance. In the updated models used in Africa, we want to detect where the elephants are. By listening, GUS will be able to lead the rangers to the animals,” he said.
“The other element we want to include is good energy storage. If we have a battery set up in the robot, plus a generator, we can remotely power off the generator as needed. When we detect that the battery is running low at a quiet time of the day or night, we can switch on the generator and charge the battery.
“We are excited to see the technology recognised for its potential use in industries beyond wildlife conservation and look forward to developing a replica that will be easy for maintenance in Africa.”