Professor Saeid Nahavandi

Director and Pro Vice-Chancellor Defence Technology, IISRI

Professor Saeid Nahavandi is the founder and Director of the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI).

People power behind robots and AI development

Tremendous advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence mean Professor Saeid Nahavandi and the team he leads at Deakin’s Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) operate in a time when humans and robots are forming an increasingly symbiotic co-existence, with huge potential benefits for our quality of life.

But among many cutting-edge projects with benefits for aerospace, defence, robotics and automation, Prof. Nahavandi also acknowledges such projects can be “exciting and daunting in equal measure”, and a key task is to ensure technology design keeps humans “on the loop”.

“Computers will be more agile and flexible,” he predicts. “We’ll see the individualisation of products much faster, but it is important that the scientific and engineering community realise the importance of designing technology that keeps humans in or on the loop,” he says. “Ethically, we always must be at least on the loop and at the apex of all the decision making.”

Working at the pinnacle of AI research

Prof. Nahavandi, an Alfred Deakin Professor who was the founder of IISRI and is Deakin University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Defence Technologies), works at the pinnacle of artificial intelligence research, pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in areas such as autonomous robots and vehicles, and brain-computer interface technology.

Working alongside global aerospace giants such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, he was named Researcher of the Year at the 2021 Australian Space Awards. He also works with defence bodies including the Australian military and DSTG, and collaborates with researchers from institutions including Harvard University, MIT, Oxford University, Imperial College and Trinity College Dublin.

Powering aerospace innovation

A particularly proud achievement has been the design, development and evaluation of an Australian-first, high-G centrifuge prototype. Called CYCLONE, it provides G-tolerance training for astronauts in carrying out space exploration tasks, as well as for pilots in handling high-speed aircraft manoeuvrability.

“CYCLONE could remove the need for Australian astronauts and scientists to go overseas for their physiological training and performance assessment under high gravity environments, leading to establishing Australian sovereign capability in space and aerospace science and exploration,” he says.

Prof. Nahavandi received a degree in mechanical engineering, a Master’s in computer-aided engineering, and a PhD in control and automation (UK) before relocating to New Zealand in 1991 to become a lecturer at Massey University, where he also developed the institution’s robotics and mechatronics degree programs and labs.

A multifaceted approach to technology

Joining Deakin in 1998 as an Associate Professor, he set up Deakin’s first robotics lab. He also brought the first car to Deakin for the cutting-edge Formula SAE program in 1999, the forerunner to the development by the student team of a carbon fibre wheel that led to the establishment of the successful Carbon Revolution enterprise.

Prof. Nahavandi has worked on numerous defence projects since 2006, when Deakin became the first Australian university to be designated a Capability and Technology Demonstrator by the Department of Defence for the purpose of designing and developing a haptic-enabled counter-IED robot.

In 2019, the IISRI’s iTrust lab was established to work with haptic, tele-operated and autonomous-capable robots, as well as measurement devices such as EEGs (brain activity), fNIR (functional near infra-red imaging), EMGs (muscle activity) and eye-tracking equipment. Among several other ongoing works is a multi-million-dollar project aimed at refining autonomous vehicles.

Improving outcomes for society

Other applications for intelligent systems with the potential to improve many aspects of society include medical procedures and patient outcomes, safer transport or construction, security and defence, agriculture, manufacturing and healthcare. “Systems are already in use in many of these sectors,” Prof. Nahavandi says.

“I love using my knowledge of intelligent systems to solve problems; to push the boundaries of what these technologies can do and devise ways to improve people’s quality of life.”

IISRI questions and answers

We sat down with Saeid to find out more about IISRI.

About IISRI

What is the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) and what inspired you to become its Director?

The Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) contributes to the research and development of robotics, haptics and human machine interfaces.

I am the founder and current Director of the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation.

IISRI has more than 100 researchers who use their R&D skills to provide practical solutions to real world problems and develop commercial-ready products and services. IISRI has been successful in the delivery of numerous industry-based research projects with major national and international organisations.

IISRI's engineering and IT researchers provide robotics, simulation modelling and haptics solutions to clients in many industries such as the aerospace, automotive, rail, defence, security, logistics and health industries.

What do you enjoy about being the Director and how do you balance that task with your own research?

I enjoy working with large groups of people, helping them to shape their ideas and bring them to fruition. Seeing lives changing for the better over the years is very satisfying. Being inquisitive, I find myself getting involved in deep research questions and getting great satisfaction seeing those find their way into real applications. Work then becomes a hobby. I set personal goals daily and keep a very close track of progress on those tasks.

What do you think distinguishes IISRI from its competitors? What do you perceive as the strengths of IISRI?

IISRI is an international leader in intelligent systems research. A new IISRI building, launched by the Governor General in 2021, makes Deakin the first university in Australia to be able to handle Zone 4 classified, secret-rated defence research. The $18 million building extends the capacity of IISRI to build on our R&D in the fields of autonomous vehicles research, High-G human centrifuge, motion simulation, robotics and haptics, defence systems, and modelling and simulation. It will allow us to play an even stronger leadership role in technological discovery, advancement and innovation.

We work with partners around the world and bring together Deakin experts from many disciplines, from artificial intelligence to human performance, to manufacturing and many others, to pool knowledge and find innovative solutions to complex challenges. You can read about some of these in the major projects section below.

Our work also supports regional industries and has created regional jobs. Several of our innovations that originally started as Australian Research Council (ARC) awards have led to successful start-ups such as Universal Motion Simulation (UMS), which is commercialising the motion simulation capability developed within IISRI. FLAIM Systems is another example, which has found a global market for its VR and haptics firefighter training system.

Both FLAIM and UMS are developing production techniques and processes ahead of scale production and delivery to the defence industry in ManuFutures at Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus.

Our OzBot robotic platforms developed in early 2000 are now being commercially produced with an industry partner in Queensland for use in defence, security, firefighting and aerospace, with clients including NASA!

How do you see IISRI contributing to Deakin's strategic priorities? What are your priorities for the Institute?

Our activities align closely with Deakin’s strategic priorities. Deakin’s overarching strategic theme, ‘Ideas to Impact’ encapsulates our modus operandi. We are a hub of ideas that our researchers can test, refine and translate to achieve real solutions. The success of this approach can be seen in achievements such as our start-ups, FLAIM Systems and UMS, and the countless collaborations that have benefited our partners and wider society.

We embody Deakin’s strategic emphasis on partnerships, with many collaborators in Australia and overseas, from Boeing, Thales or Lockheed Martin to the Australian Electoral Commission, to the Australian army, to small and medium enterprises in Geelong and across Australia. We also collaborate in global academic and professional communities to test and share our ideas with other world experts. These partnerships help us deliver on our commitments to staff and students, to realise talent through targeted development and opportunities for success across discovery, innovation and industry pathways.

Our research aligns with several Deakin impact themes, particularly, Creating Smarter Technologies, and Building Safe and Secure Communities, but also Advancing Society, Culture and the Economy, and Improving Health and Wellbeing. Our priority is to advance the global knowledge base of intelligent systems research, to contribute to a safer, more productive and fairer world, and contribute to regional job creation in Victoria.

IISRI projects

What are some of the major projects the Institute is working on?

We have created Australia’s first high-G centrifuge platform, CYCLONE. The system was designed, built and tested in Australia by local talent and puts Australia at the forefront of aviation and space training technologies. CYCLONE increases Australia’s defence capability in air combat training by addressing the requirements for simulation and training in next-generation aircraft. CYCLONE can be used to train astronauts for Australia’s future space industry.

Our intelligent systems researchers developed Systems Thinking in Knowledge Exchange (STICKE) – a visual mapping software that is being used to achieve community-wide change. For instance, in a joint project between Deakin researchers and community members from the Victorian town of Portland, STICKE is being used to tackle the complex problem of childhood obesity. The community was able to define the problem, identify the drivers of the problem, and then co-design actions to make the local environment healthier for everyone, especially children.

This Sustainable Eating and Activity Change Portland (SEA Change Portland) project has seen almost 300 community-led actions, from promotion of drinking water to school canteen menu changes, resulting in a decrease in local children’s BMI. This model is attracting interest from many other communities in Australia and overseas.

A research project with the Australian Army is developing innovations in autonomous vehicle technology. Over two phases, this project is focussing on large vehicles in the first instance, but the technology is vehicle agnostic. The vehicles are furnished with a range of advanced sensors – powered by IISRI's home-grown software algorithms – which are advanced control, AI-enabled and embedded in the vehicle control architecture to provide very safe and trustworthy manoeuvres.

Our researchers have created a modular, intuitive, flexible and easy to use, Human Monitoring System (HUMS), an advanced, all-in-one-platform. This is a physiological, physical and psychological monitoring system that collects and streams data from a variety of sensors on just one device, with the HUMs software-hardware integrated system. It is a real-time advanced human performance monitoring and analysis tool for a range of applications. HUMS has been tested in a range of environments already, with applications including: medicine and health, aviation, defence, education, academic, physical exercise and emergency services.

We are also doing very exciting work with iPupilX, an eye tracking device that generates information through changes in the wearer’s pupil, disclosing attention and focus levels. This has potential applications in many areas, from surgery to transport to defence and beyond.

Through a joint research collaboration with the Bionics Institute, we are engaged to objectively detect tinnitus and quantify its severity using brain imaging data (fNIRS). fNIRS samples were processed using machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to extract useful features/patterns and develop predictive hybrid models for tinnitus detection and severity prediction.

We have taken modern manufacturing to the next level through a White Paper on Fifth Industrial revolution “Industry 5.0 - A Human-Centric Solution”. This work has also been warmly welcomed in emerging enabling technologies for Industry 5.0, notably by the European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Brussels.

Our researchers are working with the Australian Electoral Commission to improve Australia’s voting process. This IISRI team is using computer-based simulation models to investigate ways to improve the queuing process for voters.

IISRI has released a White Paper that evaluates opportunities and next steps for Advanced Aerial Mobility (AAM) in Australia, focusing on electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft in the passenger and freight context. Advanced Aerial Mobility provides a means of connecting regional centres with cities and each other without expensive land infrastructure and is a technology that would significantly benefit Australia.

We hope the White Paper will help develop the momentum for a manufacturing and service ecosystem within Australia for eVTOL aircraft. There are over 250 designs being developed worldwide and Australia should be part of the global supply chain systems, given we have good technologies in light-weight materials, battery technologies and system integration.

Researchers from IISRI and Deakin’s Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics are working with Quickstep, Australia’s leading carbon fibre and composites solution manufacturer, on high payload, long-range freight drones. A close industry partner, Quickstep’s global R&D and technology centre is co-located on Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus.

Researchers from IISRI and Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials are working with carbon fibre wheel manufacturer Carbon Revolution on a “digital twin” project. The fourth industrial revolution is seeing the integration of cyber and physical systems and has led to the development of virtual models, often called digital twins, that bear a close resemblance to physical reality. The deployment of digital twins is only just gathering widespread uptake, but IISRI has been researching this area for over 20 years with leading automotive, aerospace, rail and mining companies.

Carbon Revolution is expanding rapidly and needed technologies to guide the process of industrialisation, from the earlier batch and manual processes. IISRI has developed two key technologies to assist:

  • Discrete Event Simulation (DES) models for current and future production scenarios, coupled with a Bayesian Optimiser to direct the search of some large solution spaces,
  • A 3D virtual model with integrated Industrial IoT communications protocols (inside the Unreal Engine) to enable virtual commissioning and photorealistic visualisation and immersion of the future factory.

Overall, the technology developed has significantly helped Carbon Revolution identify key areas of investment, solve current operational and process design challenges, and provided the foundation digital twin for emulation of the future factory, where the expected production is 10 times greater than the existing production facility.

Higher degree by Research

What disciplines are you looking for in your HDR students and how can prospective students engage with your Institute?

We are always on the lookout for dedicated and inspired students and postdoctoral fellows who want to further their careers in intelligent systems. We currently have opportunities for PhDs and postdoctoral fellows in all our major research areas, including: autonomous systems, robotics, haptics, control systems, systems modelling and simulation, optimisation, decision making, human performance analysis, signal processing and brain/computer interface.

If you're interested in researching with us, get in touch by forwarding your CV and academic transcript via email.

How do HDR students contribute to the work the Institute is doing? Where do you see your current HDR students working in the future? How do you see them contributing to the field in future?

Our HDR students often get involved in aspects of our industry-based projects. This will give them a taste of what real-world problem-solving entails.

Our HDR students will be able to find jobs in industry, academia, research, Defence, Defence industry and government sectors. Their contributions would encompass a range of domain spheres.

The future of IISRI

What do you think will be some of the most exciting or ground-breaking uses of IISRI’s research in 10-20 years’ time?

There are likely to be a number of ground-breaking applications arising from our research.

We have developed autonomous vehicle technologies for large vehicles, powered by advanced control systems, AI and sensor fusion so that a vehicle can identify and avoid potential hazards on the road or off-road, for instance. We expect autonomous vehicles to be on our roads within 10 years.

Advanced aerial mobility has great potential in Australia, given our size, weather and geographical spread. With industry partners, our researchers are looking at the feasibility of connecting regional areas with flying cars, initially through 200–250-kilometre passenger service flights, and we expect this to become a reality in 10-20 years.

Our research on human-machine interface and haptics is also very exciting. Through our iTrust Lab, we’re investigating how the brain is functioning while people interact with a machine. This gives us a physiological measure, rather than a subjective one, and has enormous potential for taking our interaction with robots and autonomous vehicles much closer.

Another exciting area is precision training. We are discussing with industry partners how we can deduce the quality of learning in a simulation while a task is given by monitoring brain activity. This research is likely to lead to personalised, precision training that adapts to an individual’s brain waves through lightweight, portable EEG or functional near-infrared spectroscopy. This could improve training of airline pilots or surgeons, with wider applications across society as the technology becomes more affordable and sophisticated.

The potential of all these innovations is mind-boggling, but it is all about improving life for individuals.