Driverless vehicle research hub to be established in Karratha

Alicia PereraPilbara News
City of Karratha Mayor Peter Long, Fortescue deputy chief executive Julie Shuttleworth, Fortescue autonomy lead Paul Lucey and UTS executive director of data science Fang Chen.
Camera IconCity of Karratha Mayor Peter Long, Fortescue deputy chief executive Julie Shuttleworth, Fortescue autonomy lead Paul Lucey and UTS executive director of data science Fang Chen. Credit: Picture: Marg Bertling/Pilbara Site Pics, Marg Bertling/ Pilbara Site Pics

Karratha is set to become a hub for driverless vehicle technology after Fortescue Metals Group announced plans to create an ambitious automation research and development centre in the CBD last week.

The Future of Mobility Centre, which will be based in the Karratha Quarter, will explore opportunities for applying autonomous mobility technology in an urban environment in Australia, drawing on the miner’s experiences with automation at its Pilbara iron ore mine sites.

The tertiary education centre will explore all aspects of self-drive technology to spot opportunities for development, with its first program to test an autonomous shuttle bus, similar to the one operated by RAC in South Perth, in central Karratha.

It will also run precision mapping for research using a vehicle mounted with an advanced mapping tool — the first of its kind in Australia.

The centre will be operated by Fortescue in partnership with the City of Karratha and various technology and research partners, including the University of Technology Sydney.

Fortescue deputy chief executive Julie Shuttleworth said the company was excited about the opportunity to extend its mining automation expertise to a society-wide level, and described the centre’s prospects as “limitless”.

“We see this as an opportunity for Australia, particularly WA, to take a lead in autonomous mobility technology and really leverage off the experience (Fortescue) have already got at our mine sites,” she said.

“The opportunity here is coming, it’s happening overseas, so we’ve got to lead it in Australia and be involved in that.”

City of Karratha Mayor Peter Long said the local government was thrilled Karratha had been chosen as the centre’s location.

“We’re just getting our Pilbara Universities Centre started ... but being able to provide postgraduate work is the stuff that is really exciting and will put us on the map,” he said.

“It is game-changing for Karratha and also for the region.” Cr Long said he expected the centre to bolster Karratha’s population and reputation and attract more people to the region.

UTS executive director of data science Fang Chen said the centre would stand out because it offered automation researchers a rare chance to study “based on the real thing”.

“It’s very exciting, because this is a space that is changing very fast,” she said.

“We know autonomous vehicles are just at our doorway ... so we are here to try to figure out all those questions (around it) and an interactive way of having a community and research companies, and even government, figure out the right way to adopt the technology.”

Fortescue autonomy lead Paul Lucey said Karratha’s smaller population, combined with modern infrastructure, meant it resembled a big city on a small scale, made it an ideal location for testing driverless technology in an urban environment.

The centre is expected to be up and running in five to six months.

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