For six days in late 2010, South Australian hills will come alive with the sound of military robots.
The Multi Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge, also known as Magic 2010, is sponsored by the Australian and American departments of defence.
Its goal? To discover and reward the finest minds in robotics – and then use them to make machines capable of “neutralising hostiles”. First prize is $US750,000. The second and third prize winners will take home $US250,000 and $US100,000 respectively.
The idea isn’t new at all. The DARPA Challenge is a world-famous military-sponsored event for robotic cars that can navigate around maps. Teams from the world’s universities come to compete for the multi-million dollar prizes along with car manufacturers and tech firms.
The only difference here is the Aussie challenges include tasks like avoiding sniper action.
While it may seem crass in this world of collateral damage and troop deployments to praise the development of killer robots, the silver lining is a major boost to local robotic technology R&D. This is turn boosts Australia’s manufacturing capacity and generates domestic jobs.
Although Australian teams have long had the imagination to develop robotics, funding and transport have been a major issue. Competitions are usually run overseas, with DARPA held in California and the RoboCup Rescue 2009 taking place in Austria.
This shortage of competition has contributed to Australia lagging behind. Even developing nation, Indonesia managed to beat us at the 2009 RoboGames, getting a gold medal in the automated fire-fighting challenge.
A quick visit to the Australian Robotics & Automation Association (ARAA) website shows Australia has no shortage of robot distributors and researchers.
But the majority of them rely on foreign technology and expertise, which gives jobs and money away.
Hosting this competition will encourage and fund local development using local parts and local technology. As the need for robotics grows, so too will the need for infrastructure and IT support - larger datacentres, more computers and faster Internet will finally be paid for by commercially viable robotics firms, rather than measly university grants.
Eventually, Australian independent software vendors (ISV) may find work developing software that larger firms won't make.
So while developing teams of hunter-seeker droids that hunt down targets and carry weapons autonomously through the Adelaide Hills may sound like the script of a cheesy b-grade sci-fi flick, the trickle-down effects will eventually benefit Australian tech research and Australian businesses.