She is the proud progeny of two engineers who always harboured a love for maths and science. Today the UTS School of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering Acting Head is one of the world’s best robotics problem solvers.

Teresa Vidal-Calleja has always enjoyed assisting others to make an impact.

Whether it’s helping to design robots that can tell users when their pipes are about to fail, coming up with the technology to scan 3D farm animals to estimate future yields or developing algorithms for glasses for visually impaired people to “visualise” the world around them, the Head of School of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering at UTS loves been at the cutting edge of robotics research.

Vidal-Calleja, also the Research Director at UTS Robotics Institute, says there are many ways in which robotic technology can help people by making tasks more efficient, accurate or cost-effective. One of the most important of these is where robots have the potential to help society by making tasks safer or providing access where humans cannot go, she says.

I would love to see robots working autonomously in disaster zones, exploring the deep-sea or outer space, or areas with extreme temperatures or pressure supporting scientific studies or maintaining our agricultural fields or our infrastructures.

Vidal-Calleja’s love for robotics research was cemented at an early age. With both parents earning a living as engineers, it’s not surprising that she grew up “solving all sorts of puzzles, building things, and playing with technology”.

She was still in high school when she identified that she wanted to study something related to STEM and decided to do a Mechanical Engineering degree. It would take until she had already started her Bachelor’s degree to find out that specialising in Mechatronics to do Robotics was even an option.

2024 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation

After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she did a Masters by research in Mechatronics and then a PhD in Robotics. In 2012 she joined the Robotics Institute and in 2014 Vidal-Calleja was named the UTS Chancellors Postdoctoral Fellow and later Senior Lecturer.

“[The fellowship] is a competitive and prestigious scheme for early career researchers. This fellowship gave me independence and some funding, and allowed me to gain experience in teaching and learning with a smaller load than the typical balanced academic.”

These days much of Vidal-Calleja’s research interests centre around robotics perception, alternative sensing, inertial fusion, simultaneous localisaton and mapping (SLAM), continuous mapping, aerial and ground robot cooperation, autonomous navigation, automatic recognition and digital engineering.

Vidal-Calleja says a large part of her remit is to help work alongside key industry partners to help enable collaborative robots to work side-to-side with humans in the workplace while making Australia’s manufacturing industry, safer, traceable and more efficient.

She is currently working alongside smart-glass firm ARIA with whom she is developing algorithms to interpret information and transmit relevant aspects via audio cues that help users visualise the world around them.

Meanwhile, she recently completed a project with Meat and Livestock Australia, where she worked to develop the technology to 3D scan cattle in farms and the algorithms to estimate and forecast yield. This technology, she says, will enable farmers to make more informed decisions on feeding regimes and sorting of the livestock, improving productivity, but also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

She says one of the most challenging aspect of her role is putting into practice her leadership skills. This is because the attributes required for industry collaborations are very different to those developed as an engineer or researcher.

As an academic, we want to develop novel methods and proof-of-concept systems and then publish the developments. Industry, on the other hand, wants to get ready-to-use products that increase their market competitiveness. Also timewise, we need time to understand the problem, do a thorough literature review and deem the solution feasible, before committing to the development. Industry partners often operate on tighter deadlines and want solutions in different time frames.

The recently announced National Robotics Strategy aims to close some gaps that currently exist between academia and industry for a wider adoption of robotic technology in Australia. “At the UTS Robotics Institute we are well-positioned to support the government in this initiative”.

In the meantime, however, there are always numerous trends, challenges and opportunities demanding her attention.

She says Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms are being used to interpret sensor data, most of the work is related to cameras but more and more the trend expands to other sensors such as lidar, inertial sensors, radars and tactile sensors to allow robots to better understand their surroundings.

“Also, with the availability of the large language models such as the ones that power chatGPT, robots already started to have more natural means of communication with humans, essentially becoming more user-friendly. We have also seen deep reinforcement learning techniques that have enabled robots to move in agile and dynamic ways never achieved before. There are many challenges with these new trends in terms of regulation and ethical considerations that need to be addressed.”

By its very nature, the Robotics field is continuing to evolve at a rapid pace. Vidal-Calleja predicts some significant progress in the next few years and cites autonomous cars as a great example.

“Despite many predictions 10 years ago, they haven’t become ubiquitous. Regulations and infrastructure changes need to happen to increase the adoption. My forecast is not about autonomous driving in busy cities, but about the possibilities the boom of autonomous driving opened in the robotics field in terms of autonomy. We see today self-driving mining vehicles and trucks are widely utilised. Very soon we will see more autonomous robots monitoring wildlife, tracking deforestation, helping farmers make informed decisions, etc.”

Regarding this, Vidal-Calleja is part of an exciting initiative proposing an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Positioning, Navigation, and Tracking. This initiative aims to address many challenges that enable autonomy in such environments.