The Brisbane robotics firm going where no human must

25 MARCH 2024

When a limestone mine in Tennessee collapsed in 2021, the world turned to a robotics firm in Brisbane to execute the deepest remote underground mine inspection in history.

The Lhoist North American limestone mine near Crab Orchard, Tennessee, which is over 100 years old, caused an air blast when a section of it collapsed on the morning of August 13, 2021. Fortunately, thanks to a quick-acting supervisor who began an evacuation as soon as he noticed something was amiss, nobody was hurt. 

But before work could be done to reopen the mine and production could resume, an inspection of the site would need to be completed at unprecedented depths, reaching 1.7 kilometres down into the mine. 

“The US Mine Safety and Health administration said you can’t go back in there until you know what’s going on, and you can’t send people in there,” explains Dr Joe Cronin, the Co-Founder and CEO of Australian Droid + Robot (ADR). 

“So they searched the world for a company with the capability to safely and quickly complete a deep underground inspection, and they found us.” 

Using 10 of their unmanned Explora XL robots, designed to withstand the most hazardous conditions, ADR was able to conduct a thorough inspection while feeding video to mine operators at up to 80 megabits per second (Mbps) – an acceptable speed for a household connection in ideal conditions, and a staggering one for a live feed from an underground mine. 

“We were able to do a full inspection of a mine that had no communications infrastructure in place post-collapse, and acquire enough data for the mine to restart operations within a week,” Dr Cronin says. 

“That was the moment for us. That was when we recognised that this system we’d been working on for a long time was reaching maturity, and that this was the application for our data acquisition technology that we should focus on. 

“Since then, we’ve gained a lot more traction in the mining industry.”

These are the droids you’re looking for 

ADR have earned a reputation for operating in challenging, high-risk environments, including underground and open-pit mining operations, where they’re able to gather data that’s too risky – or too time-consuming – for humans to obtain through conventional means. 

While the mining industry continues to improve conditions for its workers and strive for zero harm, mining environments are inherently hazardous. According to Safe Work Australia, the mining industry has the third highest fatality rate of any industry, with an average of nine workers dying each year. In the United States, the Mine Safety & Health Administration reported 40 fatalities in 2023 – the deadliest year in a decade. 

“Our motto is that we go where no human must,” Dr Cronin says. “The mining environment is a challenging one – not just underground, where we’ve seen explosions and collapses, but also on the surface, where you have large vehicles moving around with limited visibility. These aren’t places where you really want people. So we started ADR to keep people out of harm’s way, by allowing them to undertake hazardous tasks remotely.”

Drawing on decades of experience in devising, building and delivering field robotics for a range of industries, including mining and defence, Dr Cronin began tinkering with the technology that would eventually become ADR’s data acquisition system in a Brisbane garage. 

He was soon joined by co-founders Dr Dawid Preller, ADR’s chief product officer, and Mat Allan, ADR’s chief technology officer, in the company’s current headquarters in Taringa (located about five kilometres south-west of the Brisbane CBD, bordering St Lucia, which is home to the University of Queensland). 

“All of us have always had a fascination for building things that move and systems that do things,” Dr Cronin says. “And that’s what we do here – we’re a one-stop shop, from software to mechanical design and assembly through to data analytics and communications.” 

ADR’s Explora Data Acquisition System consists of a mobile sensor platform with third-party sensor integration, a secure data pipeline, and the ability to integrate with third-party tools and software. Their mobile sensor platforms, including the Explora XL, were developed with challenging applications such as underground mine mapping and surveying in mind. 

“I think it’s universally accepted that there’s going to be a huge demand for minerals that are essential for renewable energy technologies, and so people are going to keep building mines,” Dr Cronin says. 

“The issue is that the low-hanging fruits – the big deposits that are close to capital cities – are gone. Mines are going to become more remote, they’re going to get deeper, and they’re going to get hotter, and there’s going to be more demand for remote operating capabilities.

“There are other companies that have recognised the potential of robots for asset inspection and asset maintenance, but they tend not to survive underground. That’s our real strength – we started underground. We’ve worked in these environments, we know what they’re really like, and we’ve taken the time to develop hardware that’s rugged, robust and resilient. 

“Our platforms are waterproof, dustproof and highly agile, with individual motors on each wheel for the maximum amount of traction. They’ve been designed to operate in the extreme temperatures of environments like the Pilbara, from where they feed spatial, atmospheric and video data back to our data warehouse for analysis.

“We defined a problem and we identified a solution, rather than developing a solution in search of a problem.” 

Robot on mine
ADR robot on mine site 

The corridor of power 

ADR is right at home in Brisbane, which has been recognised as one of the world’s 50 most innovative cities for its world-class research and technology. 

“Brisbane has the biggest robotics community in Australia,” Dr Cronin says. “Our office here in Taringa is part of a robotics corridor that includes the Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Robotics, the University of Queensland’s Robotics Design Lab, and CSIRO’s Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies, as well as a range of robotics businesses and groups.

“There’s a strong focus on mechatronics in schools and universities, which has created a huge talent pool here in Brisbane. And then we’re also seeing talent from around Australia and the world being attracted to Brisbane because of the critical mass that the robotics industry has built here.

“And for a business like ours that’s receiving parts and sending machinery around the world, it’s important that Brisbane is also a logistics hub with a 24/7 global airport. So it’s just a great place for us to be.”

The company cemented its role in the Brisbane business landscape when it was nominated in three prestigious categories at the 2023 Lord Mayor’s Business Awards, including the Accenture Australia Product Innovation Award and Business Chamber Queensland Small Business Award, with CTO Mat Allan winning the Port of Brisbane Young Business Person of the Year Award. 

“For us to be nominated alongside a cohort of high calibre candidates was an honour, and for Mat to take out the award that he did was just fantastic for our business,” Dr Cronin says. “It’s opened doors for us, and it’s great recognition – not just for what we’re doing, but for the thriving robotics community in Brisbane as a whole.”

Engineer working on robot
Engineer working on robot

Future focus 

Currently in the midst of a capital raise, ADR’s focus is primarily on the Australian market for now – with an eye on international expansion to follow. 

“Our real focus is to develop and build out our capability with the customers we already have in the Australian market,” Dr Cronin says. “Our clients include BHP and Rio Tinto, and we have systems operating in Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. We want to expand what we can do for those customers and for the mining industry in Australia over the next 12 to 18 months, and then we want to look at expanding our operations overseas. In fact, we already have customers in the United States, Canada, Germany and Sweden.

“The mining industry is where we’re getting the most traction at the moment, and it’s what the technology was originally developed for. But at the same time, it’s a genuine dual-use technology. There’s a defence application there, because our mobile sensor platforms could be sent forward by troops to see what’s hiding around the next corner. 

“Any large infrastructure project, and any work being done in challenging environments, can benefit from this technology. We’ve inspected large underground water systems here in Brisbane, for instance, and we’ve inspected tunnels. So there are a range of applications that we can explore.” 

Ultimately, Dr Cronin sees his business as being on a similar growth trajectory to its home city. 

“As we grow, our success will be Brisbane’s success,” he says. “We benefit from the tech community and the infrastructure that’s already here, and as we expand, we’ll continue to employ more people in Brisbane and to build that critical mass for the robotics industry here. 

“By the time the Olympics come to Brisbane in 2032, my ambition is for ADR to be the predominant global supplier of remote data acquisition for heavy industries. That’s what we’re aiming for and that’s what we’re working towards, and I think we’re on the right track.”

Looking up at Skyscrapers in Brisbane City