How a Brisbane autonomous robot company commercialised its tech

By Joseph Brookes

Autonomous robots being used today in dangerous precision blasting work in Chile started in an engineer’s backyard in Brisbane six years ago.

But getting to this point – an Australian startup exporting advanced technology – required a level of government support and leadership the founder sayid has disappeared in recent years.

In 2015, Jeff Sterling was looking to expand the engineering consultancy he had been running for three decades because he was increasingly being ‘squeezed’ by management consultants higher up the chain.

Sterling said: “I needed to change direction a bit, so I started thinking … and out of that the genesis of the robotics started.

“And then I became quite enthusiastic about it — obsessed is probably more accurate — and started up the robotics company.”

His company, Universal Field Robots (UFR), specialises in autonomous heavy machinery and now employs around 20 mechanical and mechatronic engineers, software developers and salespeople.

What began in Sterling’s garage quickly led to a three-tonne prototype.

“It didn’t fit in the garage.

“That was a first prototype. We bought a second-hand machine, we built that [into a robot] and ran it up and down the driveway.”

UFR now builds fully autonomous robots with various industrial capabilities. The startup takes apart Caterpillar excavators and modifies and re-engineers them with sensors and automation software.

Its sweet spot in the resources market — which is already well advanced in autonomous options — is myriad ‘little’ automated tasks in between the large driverless mine trucks and robotic drilling.

The company’s flagship product is the E20C, a two-tonne robotic platform which can be equipped with various attachments to perform a variety of tasks.

An early UFR prototype was presented at a leading robotics conference in 2018, and garnered attention for automated avocado picking. Commercial inquiries followed for agricultural applications and a proposal to use the machines to construct solar farms.

But it wasn’t until it received a federal Accelerating Commercialisation grant, which provided UFR with matched funding of $833,000 and expert advice, that the company started to find its way through the commercialisation “valley of death”.

“We’d been successful with the technical stuff – we haven’t failed in anything in the technical stuff…but the commercial part is the challenging piece.”

UFR was advised through the accelerating commercialisation grant officer that agriculture was too fragmented and conservative a market for its particular robotics. The grant also meant the solar farm project, which was scrapped when a partner fell over, became a “speculative” bet rather than a death knell, Mr Sterling said.

“If we didn’t get the [Accelerating Commercialisation] grant, we could have very well fizzled at that stage.”

The capital allowed the company, which is still bootstrapping, to keep going through several ‘false starts’. Eventually, through a hackathon, it connected with IMDEX Limited, an ASX-listed global mining technology company that would later become UFR’s foundational customer.

IMDEX uses the E20C today to deploy its subterranean sensors with a robot known as the BLAST DOG, which is used to help optimise blasting based on high-resolution three-dimensional material models built from sensor data.

IMDEX is now testing nearly a dozen BLAST DOGs in Chile and Australia in a priority project to commercialise the technology with its own clients. Its’ sensor data allows IMDEX to adjust blasting to different levels of the hole based on the different material. The more sophisticated blasting ultimately creates much more manageably sized material when it is later excavated.

The results have helped UFR to gain recognition in Australia’s mining equipment, technology and services, or METS, sector. Last year, UFR secured $1 million in funding from the METS Growth Centre, IMDEX, and an industry partner for a new project to take the technology to underground mines.

The project is one of just four selected by METS for support under its collaborative project fund. Together, the projects are projected to generate revenue over $100 million for the local sector.

This story first appeared in InovationAus

Picture: Universal Field Robots founder and managing director Jeff Sterling

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