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Aussie innovations: mealworm snack packs, in-mouth robots, drone weeding and more

“We have deals with larger food manufacturers at the moment for our bulk ingredients and we’ve had a really good response from retail,” says founder Skye Blackburn, a food scientist and edible bug evangelist. “In our new facility we’ll be able to use all the technology we’ve been developing over the past 14 years, including applying artificial intelligence to the feeding, cleaning and monitoring side of things.”

According to the CSIRO, the global market for edible insects is expected to grow to $1.4 billion by 2023. “More than 2100 insect species are currently eaten,” its report says, noting that there are 14 Australian insect-based businesses. While the industry’s growth is limited by “the current state of consumer attitudes”, Blackburn thinks that will change as people realise that dried crickets are 68 per cent protein and packed with essential micronutrients. “Everything your body needs in a tiny little package.”

Solar will raise the standard of living around the world.

Solar will raise the standard of living around the world.Credit:Illustration by Simon Letch

Power to the people

Get ready for “insanely cheap” power as the price of renewables tumbles, says University of NSW professor Martin Green, inventor of the PERC solar cell used in about 85 per cent of the world’s solar module production.

“Last year, the International Energy Agency said solar now provides the cheapest electricity ever seen, and the cost is still going down,” Green says. “Australia has more rooftop solar than any other country, even not normalising for population, and the average size of the systems is going up.”

Green is director of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, where the next generation of “solar” is being developed. He says more powerful home systems will charge electric cars and vice versa, with those cars providing a “bank” of home energy when needed. But he doesn’t see each house being self-contained and off the grid.

“Storage is done most cheaply at the centralised level,” he says. Green believes the revolution will happen “due to economics”, and raise the standard of living around the world. “Solar is the most viable way of getting a reliable electricity supply to the couple of billion people in the world who still don’t have access to it.”

Humans and robots will be collaborating further in the future.

Humans and robots will be collaborating further in the future.Credit:Illustration by Simon Letch

Robots and cobots

Drones and other robots – or “cobots”, to use the term for those designed to collaborate or interact with humans – will play an ever larger role in our futures. Imagine rescue work at a collapsed building being aided by purpose-built drones, or “electronic lizards” capable of scaling sheer walls and slithering through tiny openings to detect survivors. The latter are currently being developed at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Or robots such as the AI-controlled drone developed by Israel’s Tevel Aerobotics Technology that can identify ripe fruit and pick it, around the clock.

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New Zealand’s AgResearch led a three-year study into drone-based weeding, with the aim of identifying unwanted plants based on their unique chemical signatures and how they reflect light, and precisely mapping their locations using GPS. Program leader Dr Kioumars Ghamkhar has said the drone could then destroy the weeds with lasers.

The business applications of this so-called “map and zap research” are still being investigated, with more of them to be revealed this year.

It is believed phones in the future will be able to charge within a minute and last three days.

It is believed phones in the future will be able to charge within a minute and last three days.Credit:Illustration by Simon Letch

Materials advance

The spruikers of graphene say this one-atom-thick material is 200 times stronger than steel, harder than diamond and has extraordinary electrical conductivity. Craig Nicol, chair of the Australian Graphene Industry Association, is convinced it will change the world the way silicon did with the advent of the silicon microchip that powers mobile phones and computers. We will likely see graphene used in electronics, filtration, ultra-sensitive sensors, lubrication and all manner of materials.

Nicol is also founder and CEO of GMG, which produces coatings that use graphene’s heat transfer properties to make airconditioners run more efficiently. The Brisbane-based company is also working with the University of Queensland to bring energy-dense graphene aluminium-ion batteries to market, which they hope will one day power everything from watches to phones, and eventually cars and aircraft, while also backing up power grids. Nicol plans to debut a prototype watch-camera “coin cell” by the end of this year, and in a phone in 2022. He believes we’ll eventually see phones that charge in less than a minute and run for three days. Others – including Samsung – are also working on graphene batteries, so the race is on.

The future will involve turning raw “waste resources” into high-value products.

The future will involve turning raw “waste resources” into high-value products.Credit:Illustration by Simon Letch

What goes around comes around

The circular economy is on the way and, according to KPMG, it will add more than $200 billion and 17,000 full-time jobs to the Australian economy by 2047-48. And there’s no bigger – and smarter – advocate of the “it’s not waste, it’s a resource” mantra than University of NSW Professor Veena Sahajwalla, a pioneer of micro recycling which creates, as she puts it, “a whole new range of very sophisticated recycling solutions that really didn’t exist before”.

Way beyond turning aluminium cans into more aluminium cans, the future will involve turning raw “waste resources” such as car tyres and beer bottles into high-value products such as green steel and home furnishings. Sahajwalla says the micro factories – buildings with a handful of staff – which her team have designed, with backing from the Australian Research Council, use a range of proprietary techniques, such as thermal isolation, to “unpick” complex structures.

They can therefore extract manganese and zinc from dead batteries, and create filament for 3D printers from mixed plastic structures such as old laser printers. Even more impressively, they can transform fabric into ceramic tiles. “A soft material is now becoming part of a hard, durable green ceramic,” Sahajwalla says. “You’re combining that with waste glass and heat … to create this integrated structure. That’s what we do in our micro factories.”

Robots will allow those in the city to ‘visit’ remote communities.

Robots will allow those in the city to ‘visit’ remote communities.Credit:Illustration by Simon Letch

Even more remote working

Canberra-based Dentroid is working on an in-mouth robot that could allow city-bound dentists to “visit” remote communities. Co-founder and CEO Omar Zuaiter says the robot uses laser heads, micro cameras and other controllers to end the need for drills and needles. “They look at the tooth, analyse it and remove the decayed materials. Laser is really, really good at that.” Zuaiter says as communication infrastructure improves, the system will be able to reach further into distant areas. A commercial release is hoped for in 2024.

Quantum computing is set solve solve complex corporate, governmental and defence problems.

Quantum computing is set solve solve complex corporate, governmental and defence problems.Credit:Illustration by Simon Letch

Lightning-quick calculations

Imagine a machine that could, in almost real time, complete calculations that would take thousands of years on the fastest iMac. Commercial versions could be available this decade, with Sydney-based Silicon Quantum Computing further advanced than most.

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Silicon founding director Michelle Simmons says quantum computers will work by exploiting the power of quantum physics, and initially will likely solve complex corporate, governmental and defence problems such as logistics, financial analysis, software optimisation, machine learning and bioinformatics, including early disease detection and prevention.

Although few of us will use a quantum computer any time soon (you need a controlled environment for a start), the indirect results will be profound. “Radically enhanced molecular models will mean faster processes in the development of new and better drugs,” says Simmons. “If you think classical computing has transformed the world, you haven’t seen anything yet.”

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