We are planning for the future by working with partners on developing technologies that will benefit regional communities in the next 5-10 years.

Drones for deliveries

Regional communities are uniquely positioned to benefit from drones – both airborne and ground-based. Drones will allow deliveries of small machine parts, medicines, packages and other goods far faster, further and at a lower cost than is possible with manned vehicles today.

The impact is set to be particularly significant in areas that may be frequently isolated for extended periods of time due to weather events.

Combined with other emerging technologies such as 3D-printing (when machine parts can be produced easily and inexpensively) entire logistics chains can be revolutionised. It will be possible, for example, to get a replacement part for broken agricultural machinery in the space of hours, as opposed to having to possibly wait for an interstate or overseas delivery for weeks or months.

IoT-connected machinery and smart homes will be able to collect data and anticipate faults themselves, ordering parts that need replacement before they break down and arranging the delivery of the replacement part via drone to occur at the best possible time for the customer.

Haptically-Enabled Robotics (HER)

HER will use advanced haptic (force feedback) and stereovision capability for remote medical procedures, letting healthcare professionals deliver diagnosis and treatment over vast distances. This will allow for the early detection of issues and improved patient care in regional Australia.

With HER technology a sonographer or doctor can control a robotic ‘arm’ while their movements are sent in real time to the other half of the robot which is being operated at the patient end. The system can translate a sense of touch to the doctor as if they were in the same room as the patient.

Currently people who live in remote areas experience a delay between having an ultrasound and receiving the results, which happens once their scans have been sent to a physician and reviewed, a process that can take weeks.

In the future, a number of remote communities could be supplied with an ultrasound ‘robot’ for medical diagnosis requirements. When needed, a skilled sonographer or doctor could log onto the system and perform the diagnosis with haptic, stereovision and full two-way audio visual communications.

The addition of stereovision can improve operator situational awareness by giving depth perception, which also contributes to the accuracy and efficiency of manipulation tasks.

The haptics robotics technology (once in market) means that people who live in regional Australian communities would have increased access to sonography services – which are used in the detection and treatment of heart disease, heart attack and vascular disease that can lead to stroke. Sonography is also used to guide fine needle tissue biopsies for taking cell samples from an organ for lab testing (such as testing for cancer).

The real-time nature of this technology means that this delay is eliminated, as results are delivered almost immediately. This will also reduce the need for patients to be rescanned, which can be required if the physician has follow up questions upon receiving the initial scans.

The system has been successfully demonstrated using data links to represent network latency existing between Melbourne and several regional and rural cities within Australia.

Early-stage testing has extended the trial beyond initial expectations by proving the technology on Telstra’s 4G wireless network making the system truly portable and expandable to cover over 97% of Australia’s population.

Education delivery

Education as we know it today will be different in 5-10 years’ time. The old models of established brick and mortar buildings to which students and educators travel is being disrupted. Since today’s technologies (smartphones, video conferencing, online exam verification and identification, remote lectures, virtual reality devices) mean that learners can access high-quality experiences when they choose and get a credential for it, alternatives to the existing approach are already emerging.

In 5-10 years’ time schools will function more as a hub for occasional visits rather than a centre that we rely on to provide a child’s full learning experience. Technology-fuelled environments will allow children to learn in new ways, working with physical elements as well as highly interactive digital and virtual components sourced from across the globe, the ocean’s depths and outer space.

Technology will give learners increasing decision making power over their own education. They will be able to receive education and information from a growing number of ‘educators’ (including parents) when and where they need it.

For students and educators in regional Australia, these changes will bring improved access to curriculum content, collaboration with experts located anywhere in the world and a real-time view of their progress throughout the week, semester or year.

Wearable technologies will allow students and teachers to more easily access information without any obstructions, search, take a picture, record video, and answer and translate questions in a foreign language. Apps will have the capacity to track a student’s brain activity to detect the times when a student is best placed for learning. Data from a students’ own brain, heart or nervous system could also indicate what activities might be needed to maintain focus and energy. Cameras can capture a student or educator’s point of view of events and share it with the world.

Augmented Reality (AR) – a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world – will allow educators and students to create layers of digital information on top of the physical world that can be viewed through a device. Active learning experiences can be created that facilitate deep understanding through focused interaction, thinking and reflection. Using an app called Aurasma, students and educators can already create their own personalised interactions. For example, students record themselves giving a brief review of a novel that they just finished, and then attach that “aura” (assigned digital information) to a book. Afterward, anyone can scan the cover of the book and instantly access the review. This kind of technology will be able to stimulate excitement and curiosity in ways that a text book can’t. It has great potential to reignite a generation of learners’ passion for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.

Machine learning has significant potential for education. In the traditional ratio of 30 students to one teacher it is very difficult to truly personalise learning experiences. Fundamentally, machine learning allows for unpacking of data to personalise a student’s education. For example, analytics tools will track student performance, grading systems will assess and score student responses to assessments and computer assignments at large scale, and dynamic scheduling will match students that need help with teachers that have time are already available. As students increasingly grow accustomed to personalised experiences in their social world, they will bring this demand to learning as well.

The new network

Having reliable access to the Internet is a fundamental requirement for many emerging technologies. Traditionally, this has been provided – and continues to be provided – by the means of cellular (wireless) networks and fixed networks, with infrequent and expensive satellite connections sometimes used as last resort. Several alternative access technologies are being developed to help improve coverage and connectivity, particularly in remote areas.

Low-power Wide-area Network (LPWANs), which often operate on unlicensed frequencies, can cover large geographical areas with fewer base stations than cellular networks.

However given Telstra’s extensive mobile coverage already, we are using advances in 4G technology to provide this type of functionality now (i.e. Narrow Band – IoT) using existing cellular technology. This is expected to be further supported by 5G in time. This technology roadmap is supported by standards developed by the entire global mobile industry (3GPP) and so will ensure continued support of IoT devices into the future at the quality levels demanded by these applications.

Other novel networks are being envisaged with the help of drones. These drone-based networks can be either transient in nature (e.g. when additional capacity or coverage is temporarily required) or more permanent. Google’s Skybender project aims to use high-flying drones to provide 5G connectivity as does internet.org’s Aquila unmanned aircraft. Google’s Project Loon aims to provide connectivity via high-flying balloons – just one example of a High Altitude Platform (HAP). HAPs are vehicles typically situated at altitudes between 17km and 22km and have the potential capability to serve a large number of users either in urban areas or a wide geographical regional area.

There is also research and design underway for the construction of large constellations of low-cost micro-satellites which could provide connectivity to a wide area.

It is likely that a combination of access technologies will be deployed to cater for the regional needs. With fixed and mobile networks providing the ‘core’ connectivity, alternative technologies can fill in gaps in extremely remote areas or provide booster capacity on an as-needed basis, for example during disaster relief operations.

Decentralised energy networks

There will not be a single technology that forms the future of energy for regional Australia, as industry transformation will require a suite of connectivity, mediation and applications. IoT systems, the analysis of huge volumes of data and high-speed connectivity to the multitude of energy generation and storage sources will help transform the way energy is generated, distributed, stored and used.

The ongoing development of solar energy as a highly-efficient and cheap source of energy will have a lasting impact on regional Australia, as will other small-scale renewable energy options. While Australia already has a high penetration of rooftop solar, it will increasing be used to power very remote infrastructure.

Combined with energy storage, renewable energy offers the potential to take entire communities off the grid (or greatly reduce their grid demand). Storage technologies will enable distributed renewable generation to make up a larger percentage of the total electricity supply.

Consumers will increasingly become active market participants. They will be micro-generators of renewable energy as well as traders who can sell stored energy when demand rises. The growth of smart homes will also allow for more dynamic monitoring and adjustment of energy use.

In response electricity grid operations will evolve from static to highly dynamic. Automated operations-based field sensors and actuators, operational data analysis and improved connectivity will mean an entire energy network no longer needs to be controlled from one central point. This will enable a ‘smart grid’ – characterised by network automation, dynamic allocation of energy to areas it is needed and self-healing equipment that is capable of preventing loss of service to customers. What all “smart” grid technologies rely on – from household-scale to industrial – is reliable connectivity for control.

Personalised transport

We may witness a radical change away from the personally-owned, internal combustion engine-powered, human-driven motor vehicle.

As smartphones become ubiquitous, this will enable convenient sharing of vehicles, thereby potentially reducing the number of vehicles on the road by a factor of 10. The technologies to enable autonomous operation of vehicles are progressing rapidly (thanks to machine learning and IoT) and will become commonplace in the next decade.

By 2022, thanks to enormous investment in battery technology, it is anticipated that the cost of electric vehicles will fall below that of internal combustion engine vehicles. These changes will enable convenient and cheap personalised transport across both urban and regional environments. They may also be better for the environment, safer, and release capital that is currently tied up in vehicle ownership to be deployed elsewhere. These efficiency gains could have a positive impact on regional communities, from both a social and economic perspective.

In parallel, the development of drone technology is proceeding rapidly. The improvements in electric drivetrains and autonomous systems mean drones will be capable of carrying people within the next decade. A first person-carrying drone, the eHang 184, was tested in Nevada in 2016. It is capable of carrying a single passenger at a speed of 100kph for 23 minutes. While there are corresponding regulatory issues to be resolved, this is a key advancement, which brings the reality of flying cars, and their benefits for a regional environment, that much closer.

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