University of Newcastle officially opens defence and aerospace innovation hub at Williamtown

Eric Johns with his electronic engineering masters project - a search and rescue robot that is controlled by virtual reality equipment. Picture: Nick Bielby
Eric Johns with his electronic engineering masters project - a search and rescue robot that is controlled by virtual reality equipment. Picture: Nick Bielby

The idea of a defence and aerospace innovation hub might conjure images of high tech equipment and whiteboards full of mathematical equations.

But the University of Newcastle wants to work with businesses and the community to turn knowledge and research into social and economic benefit.

The university officially opened its new defence and aerospace innovation hub at Williamtown on Wednesday – the fourth centre in a roll-out of five to six facilities.

Dubbed DSA-18, it will foster research and development of new defence and aerospace-related technology.

Professor Kevin Hall, the University of Newcastle’s deputy vice chancellor of research and innovation, said the key focus of the hub was to engage with businesses and the community.

“They’re not just for the university, they’re not just for students and researchers,” he said. 

“They’re for people and businesses to come and collide together and really look at how we can take the knowledge and create either economic or social opportunities.”

Inside the centre, the product of an innovative Hunter mind was on show. 

Eric Johns has developed a search and rescue robot that can be controlled by virtual reality equipment, as part of his electrical engineering masters project.

University of Newcastle vice chancellor Caroline McMillen with Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald at the opening of the hub on Wednesday.

University of Newcastle vice chancellor Caroline McMillen with Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald at the opening of the hub on Wednesday.

The robot, a small vehicle equipped with a camera and two arms with pincers, is similar to other robots used in emergency situations that pose a risk to human rescuers – like mine disasters, nuclear or chemical incidents and searching potentially unstable buildings after earthquakes.

But to pilot Mr Johns’ machine, the operator wears a set of goggles to see through the eyes of the vehicle, while handheld controls make the device’s arms mimic the movement of the driver’s arms.

“It translates the exact human movements into robot movements,” he said.

“It’s trying to allow search and rescue personnel to do their job without actually being there [in the danger zone].”

University of Newcastle vice chancellor Caroline McMillen said the hub would provide a “boost to the growing cluster of businesses and defence-related activities at Williamtown”.

"Around the world we have seen that the best innovation ecosystems are those where new industries, jobs and opportunities are created when research, business, government and community forge strong alliances,” she said.

Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald said the state government had contributed $1.5 million to the university’s innovation hub program so far.

“The University of Newcastle is conducting exciting research in a range of areas relevant to the defence, security, and aerospace sectors and the DSA-18 hub … will allow academics to work directly with business and industry,” he said.