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No Ordinary Joe!

How one fair dinkum ‘dummy’ has transformed the future of flying rescue robots

[Click here to download photos or watch video]

“Outback Joe is one helluva dummy!” says Australian Centre for Robotic Vision Chief Investigator Jonathan Roberts; one of the brains behind ‘the dummy’ in the world’s biggest airborne robotics challenge set to touch down in rural Queensland next week (24-28 September).

Aptly entitled the UAV Challenge, organised by QUT with the support of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision and co-organiser CSIRO’s Data61 , the visionary event has drawn an eye-boggling array of agile, low-cost lifesavers aka unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the past 12 years.

Flying robots of all shapes and sizes, weighing-in anywhere from 3kg (the weight of a brick) to around 20kg (think three bowling balls or checked-in luggage) and resembling everything from mini planes to UFO-like contraptions. All tasked with the white-knuckle challenge of navigating remote terrain, bad weather and an onslaught of obstacles (terrestrial and airborne), to aid a person in need of emergency medical assistance.

Behind it all, as Professor Roberts explains, lies one fair dinkum dummy, Outback Joe. Literally; face-down in a Dalby paddock, 200km west of Brisbane. The same rural town that produced Hollywood star Margot Robbie, who regularly visits family and friends.

While Outback Joe is yet to scale the same dizzy heights as Robbie, who last year made TIME magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential’ list, the firefighting dummy and quintessential ‘quiet achiever’ has done more to advance the future of emergency UAVs on the frontline than can easily be quantified.

“He’s certainly no ordinary Joe,” says Professor Roberts of the dummy that has inspired advances in UAV design, software and communications systems. Not least being enhancements to the functionality and codebase of open source autopilot software, ArduPilot, now embraced by major players of the ilk of Microsoft, Boeing, 3DR, jDrones, Precision Hawk, AgEagle and Kespry.

“In fact, Outback Joe has become something of a celebrity thanks to his starring role in the UAV Challenge. Fortunately, much like the community of down-to-earth farmers, he doesn’t let it go to his head.

“I know he’d welcome a co-star if Margot Robbie happens to be in town.”

Outback Joe, of course, is no stranger to the rigours of acting. Over the years, he’s stepped into character as a bushwalker lost in Woop Woop; a tradie whose ute conks out in the back of beyond; and a seriously ill farmer needing to send an urgent blood sample to his doctor.

In the UAV Challenge, Outback Joe’s perilous life-or-death situation is further amplified by the addition of simulated flash flooding. In the air, meanwhile, UAVs also have to contend with potential air strike from magpies during swooping season.

“A few of the UAVs have been clipped by maggies during the competition,” says Dennis Frousheger, senior engineer at Data61.

“Others come to grief in trees or crash and burn due to technical glitches. It doesn’t help that we also simulate obstacles, like commercial aircraft and extreme weather, for the UAVs to avoid.

“So, winning team members, in our book, are nothing short of super heroes! Actually, the biennial Medical Express challenge has not yet been completed. One team – Canberra UAV – came extremely close in 2016 and they’re coming back to give it another crack.

“However, we’ve upped the ante. To win the maximum prize of $75,000, unmanned aircraft need to complete the mission without pilot intervention while avoiding all the simulated obstacles we throw at them. It’s going to be a cliffhanger!

“But, above all, the UAV Challenge is a lot of fun, bringing together a tight-knit community of hobbyists and experts from all corners of the globe.”

On 24 September, Dalby will welcome the largest pool of UAV Challenge competitors to date, numbering 150 and surpassing 2016 levels, when hotel rooms sold out. Hailing from all corners of the globe, the competitors will contest:

  • an annual high school Airborne Delivery Challenge (24-25 September), requiring teams to use a UAV to drop an EpiPen to a stranded individual, desperate and suffering an allergic reaction; and
  • the Mission Impossible-esque open biennial Medical Express (26-28 September), requiring UAVs to not only autonomously land in difficult, unseen conditions having flown up to 30km from take-off, but return swiftly and safely with precious cargo – namely, a blood sample from the stranded patient.

Of note, a record line-up of 12 qualifying teams have made the cut to contest the open Medical Express challenge, hailing from Australia, Poland, Thailand, the Netherlands, Canada, India and China. The Airborne Delivery Challenge has similarly scored 12 teams of excited high school students coming from the United States, Korea and Australia.

Team Dhaksha, from Madras Institute of Technology, has already set tongues wagging ahead of the Medical Express challenge. Indian actor, Ajith Kumar, a leading star in Tamil Cinema – who, like George Clooney, is known for his trademark charm and salt & pepper hair, but unlike Clooney happens to also be a licensed pilot, capable of flying a fighter jet – steps up as the team’s ‘Test Pilot and UAV System Advisor’ (pictured, Centre, with Team Dhaksha, below). Plus, check out the team’s video entry as part of qualification for the 2018 UAV Challenge.


Did you know? Outback Joe is not alone when it comes to run-ins with disaster. Born and raised in Dalby, Doug Browne, whose farm the UAV Challenge takes place on, could arguably give Outback Joe a run for his money. Indeed, the 72-year-old, was sucked under flood waters and snared on a barbed wire fence during the 2010-11 Queensland Floods, needing to be airlifted out by a neighbour with a helicopter. As Doug says: “I was pretty lucky to survive that one. My legs were pretty cut up. Another time, I was knocked out cold when working on a stationary road train. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the tarp fell off and a piece of metal hit me on the head!” Not surprisingly, Doug is the first to applaud the life-saving search and rescue mission behind the UAV Challenge. “At the moment, it’s Outback Joe who needs rescuing, but you never know, it might one day be me…”

The 2018 UAV Challenge is sponsored by: Queensland Government; Insitu Pacific and Boeing Research & Technology – Australia; Northrop Grumman; Lockheed Martin Australia; Defence Science and Technology Group (part of the Australian Government Department of Defence); and MathWorks. Members of the public are welcome to join the UAV Challenge as spectators.
For more information, including competition schedule click here.

Shelley Thomas
Communications Specialist, Australian Centre for Robotic Vision
P: +61 7 3138 4265 | M: +61 416 377 444 | E: shelley.thomas@qut.edu.au

PostedSeptember 17, 2018

Australian Centre for Robotic Vision
2 George Street Brisbane, 4001
+61 7 3138 7549