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Robotic research takes flight

Robotic planes that help farmers monitor animal health, crop conditions and water use are flying out of the University of Nottingham’s newest overseas research centre.

The Geospatial Research Centre has been officially launched at its base in Christchurch, New Zealand, this month. The Centre is a joint venture between the Universities of Nottingham and Canterbury, and the Canterbury Development Corporation, and carries out research and consultancy in the fields of positioning and orientation, with particular expertise in sensor integration, image analysis, data visualisation and electronics. It bridges the gap between n academia and industry, spinning out a range of innovative new technologies to be used in areas including agriculture and forestry, environmental monitoring and management, transport and health.

Geospatial research covers the gathering and interpretation of geographic information through the use of new technologies such as satellite navigation devices. The unmanned robotic planes currently being developed could potentially be used in a range of applications from farming to search and rescue to atmospheric monitoring.

The director of the new centre is Dr David Park, formerly of the University of Nottingham’s Institute of Engineering Surveying and Space Geodesy (IESSG), moved to Christchurch with four colleagues in 2006. The new Geospatial Research Centre was established in the University of Canterbury’s New Zealand ICT Innovation Institute — part of the College of Engineering.

The New Zealand government has given NZ$2m, with regional funding providing an extra NZ$900,000. It is thought the centre will be self-supporting by the end of 2009 — with funding from industry, project-related research grants, IP licensing and PhD supervision fees.

By being based on New Zealand’s South Island, researchers can take advantage of the huge range of habitats available at close hand.

“The range of physical environments that are available for research on the South Island within a few hours of Christchurch in terms of oceans , rain forest, glaciers, mountains, cliffs and agriculture of all types, makes it all very exciting,” said Dr Park. ”We can work in partnership with domain specific users to develop technologies for a particular application or market and can then very easily test them in the real world, in realistic conditions.”

The centre is already trailing an unmanned aircraft fitted with a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, imaging systems and communications facilities. Technology on board collates and feeds information to a central computer.

“The idea is to develop a model that would retail for about NZ$10,000 [£3,500] and which would be no more than a couple of metres in size and packed with electronics and sensor devices,” added Dr Park.

Other innovative research being carried out in the centre includes the development of miniaturised, low cost positioning sensors; exploring how the latest range of Digital Signal Processing hardware can be used for real time image analysis; and the evaluation of new communications and positioning systems that do not require any traditional electronic hardware.

Representatives from the university travelled to New Zealand for the centre’s official launch, including Professor of Geodesy Alan Dodson and Professor Terry Moore.

Professor Moore, Director of the IESSG, said: “We are delighted to join our colleagues in New Zealand for the launch of this exciting new venture. The GRC will offer great opportunities for collaborative research between the IESSG and the GRC and with a broad range of new potential partners in New Zealand. Through the GRC we will encourage staff and student exchange between Nottingham and Christchurch.”

Nottingham is the UK's most pioneering university for the internationalisation of education and its strategy and approach has been rewarded with the Queen's Award for Enterprise: International Trade 2006. Few other universities in the world can boast the scale of overseas investment that has been undertaken by The University of Nottingham. It was the first UK university to establish a campus overseas, in Malaysia, and made history again when it became the world's first university to be granted a licence to open an overseas campus on mainland China, which was officially opened in Ningbo in February 2006.

The new Geospatial Research Centre represents an alternative element in the University's internationalisation strategy. Unlike its overseas campuses, the new facility will offer no formal teaching, with a small amount of PhD supervision and will concentrate instead on the commercialisation of its world-changing research.

For more information on the Geospatial Research Centre visit

Emma Thorne | alfa
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