Prefab revolution? Factory houses are the secret to green building

Karen Manley, Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology

The building sector globally currently consumes more energy (34%) than the transport sector (27%) or the industry sector (28%). It is also the biggest polluter, with the biggest potential for significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions compared to other sectors, at no cost.

Buildings offer an easily accessible and highly cost-effective opportunity to reach energy targets. A green building is one that minimises energy use during design, construction, operation and demolition.

The need to reduce energy use during the operation of buildings is now commonly accepted around the world. Changing behaviour could result in a 50% reduction in energy use by 2050.

Such savings are strongly influenced by the quality of buildings. Passive buildings are ultra-low energy buildings in which the need for mechanical cooling, heating or ventilation can be eliminated.

Modular or prefabricated green buildings, designed and constructed in factories using precision technologies, can help achieve these standards. These buildings are higher quality and more sustainable than buildings constructed on-site through manual labour. They are potentially twice as efficient compared to on-site building.

However, despite support for modular houses, there are a number of hurdles in the way of a prefab revolution.

Karen Manley_Conversation2

High-Tech Factory, Shizuoka, Sekisui House Ltd. Karen Manley, Author provided.

How green can modular buildings be?

Factory production means modular green buildings are better sealed against draughts, which in conventional buildings can account for 15-25%of winter heat loss.

And factories also have better quality control systems, leading to improved insulation placement and better energy efficiency. Good insulation cuts energy bills by up to half compared to uninsulated buildings.

Because production in a factory setting is on-going, rather than based on individual on-site projects, there is more scope for R&D. This improves the performance of buildings, including making them more resilient to natural disasters.

For example, factory built houses in Japan have performed very wellduring earthquakes, with key manufacturers reporting that none of their houses were destroyed by the 1995 Hanshin Great Earthquake, as opposed to the destruction of many site-built houses.

Buildings constructed on site probably can’t achieve the same benefits as modular buildings. Case studies in the UK show savings of 10% to 15% in building costs and a 40% reduction in transport for factory compared to on-site production. Factories also don’t lose time due to bad weather and have better waste recycling systems.


Sorting waste at Sekisui House Ltd Recycling Centre. Karen Manely – Author provided.

For instance, Sekisui House, a Japanese builder, has a system for all their construction sites where waste is sorted into 27 categories on-site and 80 categories in their recycling centre to get the best value from the resources.

On-site building is open to the weather. This prevents access to the precision technologies required to produce buildings to the highest environmental standards. These technologies include numerical controlled machinery, robotic assembly, building information models, rapid prototyping, assembly lines, test systems, fixing systems, lean construction and enterprise resource planning systems.

For example, numerical controlled machinery provides more precise machine cutting that can’t be matched by manual efforts. This, combined with modelling, fixing and testing systems helps ensure that factories produce more airtight buildings, compared to on-site production, reducing energy leakage.

Australia is behind the curve

Less than 5% of new detached residential buildings in Australia are modular green buildings.

In leading countries such as Sweden the rate is 84%.

In Japan, 15% of all their residential buildings are modular green buildings produced in the world’s most technologically advanced factories.

Globally, there is a trend toward increased market penetration of green modular buildings. Yet their adoption in the Australian building sector has been slower than expected.

However, we can still catch up. The latest evidence suggests that strengthening building codes and providing better enforcement is the most cost effective path towards more sustainable housing.

Australia doesn’t have a great record here. Our building codes could be better focused, stricter, and certainly our enforcement could be a lot better.

Building for the future

As the biggest polluter and a high energy user, the building sector urgently needs to reform for climate change mitigation.

Karen Manley_Conversation

High-Tech Factory, Shizuoka, Sekisui House Ltd. Karen Manley, Author provided.

There are serious legacy issues. Mistakes we made in the past endure throughout the life of buildings. Building decisions we make today can be very costly to reverse, and buildings last for decades! In Australia, a timber building is likely to last at least 58 years, and a brick building at least 88 years.

Currently, potential building owners are funnelled toward on-site construction processes, despite the clearly documented benefits of factory-based production. This is reflected in the low profile given to modular housing in the National Construction Code and a lack of aggressive and well enforced environmental standards. We clearly need better policy to support the modular green building industry.

Karen Manley, Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: what is FPV drone racing?

Drone racing can be done indoors or out, as long as there are obstacles that make the course interesting. Porco 777

Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

The new sport of drone racing sees small but very fast robots fly around a circuit littered with obstacles. Unlike motorsports we are familiar with, the course of a drone race can be three-dimensional, with obstacles they need to fly around, under, over and even through.

The pilots stay on the ground but they fly with a view as if they were sitting in the aircraft. This technique is known as first-person-view, or FPV, and you will often see the sport referred to as FPV drone racing.

system-guide/”>FPV, and you will often see the sport referred to as FPV drone racing.

Drone racing began as an underground activity. Early races took place in empty car parks, and parking garages are still a favourite venue for drone racers.

Forests are also a perfect venue for drone racing enthusiasts, possibly inspired by the speeder bike chase scene from the Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi.

An affordable sport

The secret of drone racing’s rapid development lies in the technology needed to participate. Nearly all of the required components are relatively cheap and quite accessible. This is the exact opposite of most motor sport.

The main elements of a drone racing set-up are the drone itself, an on-board video camera, a decent video transmitter, a pair of immersive video goggles and a set of remote controls. All of these components are now just one internet order away.

A cheap set-up could be assembled for a few hundred dollars. Unlike Formula 1 car racing, you can build a racer at home and enter yourself into a race competition. This is something for the masses to actually do, which is an exciting prospect for the armchair sports enthusiast.

Even a paper plane FPV drone is now available. You fold a paper plane, just like you did when you were a kid, and you then install the motors, autopilot and camera system. You use your smart phone in a box as your FPV goggles.

Setting up a homemade drone for the next round.
Stefan Hrabar, Author provided


The main reason drone racing is cheap is because there are no people on-board and hence the drones are very small. Some of them are tiny; they only need to be large enough to carry the video camera, battery and some electronics.

This also means that the sport is not overly hazardous to those in the immediate area. Even though the drones race up to speeds approaching 150km/h outdoors, indoors their speed is more limited due to the proximity of obstacles, and they typically weigh only hundreds of grams. Some of these drones fit into the palm of your hand.

The nature of the courses also means that the chance of impact with the humans controlling the drones or spectators is quite low. The courses are deliberately set up that way.

When flying outside, drone racers must operate according to their country’s specific airspace regulations, which differ among nations. Some are up-to-date and consider the use of drones, while others are more outdated and the use of drones is complex and sometimes even impossible.

The motivation for strict controls is to keep people not involved in the flying out of harm’s way and also reducing the risk that a drone could fly away and pose a serious hazard for a regular aircraft carrying people. All regulators are grappling with how drones will regulated as people get more into FPV racing.

When racing indoors, there are no air space regulations for drone racers to worry about. This is one of the reasons that racing around empty car parks, warehouses and office buildings is popular.

Chasing the money

The rapid rise of drone racing is already showing that this will be a big money sport. In 2015, Chad Nowak from Brisbane, Australia, was crowned thefirst world champion of drone racing.

His first prize was A$15,000 and he had only been drone racer for a year. He has now moved to the US to be closer to the centre of the big prize money drone racing scene. As the sport grows, it is inevitable that leagues will form, sponsorship will be attracted, and there will be regional and national champions.

In January 2016, an organisation called the Drone Racing League (DRL) announced that it had secured A$8 million to run an international FPV drone racing series.

Like modern Formula 1 racing, where the viewer at home can see a live video stream from the cars, DRL says that it will give viewers a customisable view from the drones. Other rival leagues and events are forming as interest grows.

And just like most existing motorsports, unfortunately, it is clear that drone racing is starting out with major gender inequality issues. The DRL has one female pilot out of the 17 listed.

An innovative drone racing group in the Gold Fields of Western Australia is trying to use the new sport to attract tourists to their region. Their videos from drones racing over spectacular desert-like landscapes are reminiscent of pod racing scene in Star Wars The Phantom Menace.

Drone racing is such a new activity that it is hard to predict if it will become a major sport to rival established individual racing sports. It may be quickly superseded by the next big thing in tech. Jet pack racing anyone?

The Conversation

Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My robot Valentine: could you fall in love with a robot?

Can a robot really feel and express emotions such as love? Shutterstock/Charles Taylor

Kate Letheren, Queensland University of Technology and Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

Imagine it’s Valentine’s Day and you’re sitting in a restaurant across the table from your significant other, about to start a romantic dinner.

As you gaze into each other’s eyes, you wonder how it can possibly be true that as well as not eating, your sweetheart does not – cannot – love you. Impossible, you think, as you squeeze its synthetic hand.

Could this be the future of Valentine’s Day for some? Recent opinion indicates that yes, we might just fall in love with our robot companions one day.

Already, robots are entering our homes at increasing rates with many households now owning a robot vacuum cleaner.

Robotic toys are becoming more affordable and are interacting with our children. Some robots are even helping rehabilitate special needs children or teach refugee children the language of their new home.

Robot romance

Will these appliances and toys continue to develop into something more sophisticated and more human-like, to the point where we might start to see them as possible romantic partners?

While some may compare this to objectophilia (falling in love with objects), we must ask whether this can truly be the case when the object is a robot that appears and acts like a human.

It is already the norm to love and welcome our pets as family members. This shows us that some varieties of love needn’t be a purely human, nor even a sexual phenomenon. There is even evidence that some pets such as dogs experience very similar emotions to humans, including grief when their owner dies.

Surveys in Japan over the past few years have shown a decline in young people either in a relationship or even wanting to enter a relationship. In 2015, for instance, it was reported that 74% of Japanese in their 20s were not in a relationship, and 40% of this age group were not looking for one. Academics in Japan are considering that young people are turning to digital substitutes for relationships, for example falling in love with Anime and Manga characters.

What is love?

If we are to develop robots that can mirror our feelings and express their digital love for us, we will first need to define love.

Pointing to a set of common markers that define love is difficult, whether it be human-to-human or human-to-technology. The answer to “what is love?” is something that humans have been seeking for centuries, but a start suggests it is related to strong attachment, kindness and common understanding.

We already have the immensely popular Pepper, a robot designed to read and respond to emotions and described as a “social companion for humans”.

How close are we to feeling for a robot what we might feel for a human? Recent studies show that we feel a similar amount of empathy for robot pain as we do human pain.

We also prefer our robots to be relatable by showing their “imperfect” side through boredom or over-excitement.

According to researchers in the US, when we anthropomorphise something – that is, see it as having human characteristics – we start to think of it as worthy of moral care and consideration. We also see it as more responsible for its actions – a freethinking and feeling entity.

There are certainly benefits for those who anthropomorphise the world around them. The same US researchers found that those who are lonely may use anthropomorphism as a way to seek social connection.

Robots are already being programmed to learn our patterns and preferences, hence making them more agreeable to us. So perhaps it will not be long before we are gazing into the eyes of a robot Valentine.

Society’s acceptance

Human-robot relationships could be challenging for society to accept, and there may be repercussions. It would not be the first time in history that people have fallen in love in a way that society at the time deemed “inappropriate”.

The advent of robot Valentines may also have a harmful effect on human relationships. Initially, there is likely to be a heavy stigma attached to robot relationships, perhaps leading to discrimination, or even exclusion from some aspects of society (in some cases, the isolation may even be self-imposed).

Friends and family may react negatively, to say nothing of human husbands or wives who discover their human partner is cheating on them with a robot.

Robot love in return

One question that needs to be answered is whether robots should be programmed to have consciousness and real emotions so they can truly love us back?

When love is returned by a robot.

Experts such as the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking have warned against such complete artificial intelligence, noting that robots may evolve autonomously and supersede humanity.

Even if evolution were not an issue, allowing robots to experience pain or emotions raises moral questions for the well-being of robots as well as humans.

So if “real” emotions are out of the question, is it moral to program robots with simulated emotional intelligence? This might have either positive or negative consequences for the mental health of the human partner. Would the simulated social support compensate for knowing that none of the experience was real or requited?

Importantly, digital-love may be the catalyst for the granting of human rights to robots. Such rights would fundamentally alter the world we live in – for better or for worse.

But would any of this really matter to you and your robot Valentine, or would love indeed conquer all?

The Conversation

Kate Letheren, Postdoctoral research fellow, Queensland University of Technology and Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Robots in health care could lead to a doctorless hospital

Would you trust your child’s health to a robot surgeon? Shutterstock/magicinfoto

Anjali Jaiprakash, Queensland University of Technology; Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology, and Ross Crawford, Queensland University of Technology

Imagine your child requires a life-saving operation. You enter the hospital and are confronted with a stark choice.

Do you take the traditional path with human medical staff, including doctors and nurses, where long-term trials have shown a 90% chance that they will save your child’s life?

Or do you choose the robotic track, in the factory-like wing of the hospital, tended to by technical specialists and an array of robots, but where similar long-term trials have shown that your child has a 95% chance of survival?

Most rational people would opt for the course of action that is more likely to save their child. But are we really ready to let machines take over from a human in delivering patient care?

Of course, machines will not always get it right. But like autopilots in aircraft, and the driverless cars that are just around the corner, medical robots do not need to be perfect, they just have to be better than humans.

So how long before robots are shown to perform better than humans at surgery and other patient care? It may be sooner, or it may be later, but it will happen one day.

But what does this mean for our hospitals? Are the new hospitals being built now ready for a robotic future? Are we planning for large-scale role changes for the humans in our future robotic factory-like hospitals?

Our future hospitals

Hospitals globally have been slow to adopt robotics and artificial intelligence into patient care, although both have been widely used and tested in other industries.

Medicine has traditionally been slow to change, as safety is at its core. Financial pressures will inevitably force industry and governments to recognise that when robots can do something better and for the same price as humans, the robot way will be the only way.

What some hospitals have done in the past 10 years is recognise the potential to be more factory-like, and hence more efficient. The term “focused factories” has been used to describe some of these new hospitals that specialise in a few key procedures and that organise the workflow in a more streamlined and industrial way.

They have even tried “lean processing” methods borrowed from the car manufacturing industry. One idea is to free up the humans in hospitals so that they can carry out more complex cases.

Some people are nervous about turning hospitals into factories. There are fears that “lean” means cutting money and hence employment. But if the motivation for going lean is to do more with the same, then it is likely that employment will change rather than reduce.

Medicine has long been segmented into many specialised fields but the doctor has been expected to travel with the patient through the full treatment pathway.

A surgeon, for example, is expected to be compassionate, and good at many tasks, such as diagnosing, interpreting tests, such as X-rays and MRIs, performing a procedure and post-operative care.

As in numerous other industries, new technology will be one of the drivers that will change this traditional method of delivery. We can see that one day, each of the stages of care through the hospital could be largely achieved by a computer, machine or robot.

Some senior doctors are already seeing a change and they are worried about the de-humanising of medicine but this is a change for the better.

Safety first but some AI already here

Our future robot-factory hospital example is the end game, but many of its components already exist. We are simply waiting for them to be tested enough to satisfy us all that they can be used safely.

There are programs to make diagnoses based on a series of questions, and algorithms inform many treatments used now by doctors.

Surgeons are already using robots in the operating theatre to assist with surgery. Currently, the surgeon remains in control with the machine being more of a slave than a master. As the machines improve, it will be possible for a trained technician to oversee the surgery and ultimately for the robot to be fully in charge.

Hospitals will be very different places in 20 years. Beds will be able to move autonomously transporting patients from the emergency room to the operating theatre, via X-ray if needed.

Triage will be done with the assistance of an AI device. Many decisions on treatment will be made with the assistance of, or by, intelligent machines.

Your medical information, including medications, will be read from a chip under your skin or in your phone. No more waiting for medical records or chasing information when an unconscious patient presents to the emergency room.

Robots will be able to dispense medication safely and rehabilitation will be robotically assisted. Only our imaginations can limit how health care will be delivered.

Who is responsible when things go wrong?

The hospital of the future may not require many doctors, but the numbers employed are unlikely to change at first.

Doctors in the near future are going to need many different skills than the doctors of today. An understanding of technology will be imperative. They will need to learn programming and computer skills well before the start of medical school. Programming will become the fourth literacy along with reading, writing (which may vanish) and arithmetic.

But who will people sue if something goes wrong? This is, sadly, one of the first questions many people ask.

Robots will be performing tasks and many of the diagnoses will be made by a machine, but at least in the near future there will be a human involved in the decision-making process.

Insurance costs and litigation will hopefully reduce as machines perform procedures more precisely and with fewer complications. But who do you sue if your medical treatment goes tragically wrong and no human has touched you? That’s a question that still needs to be answered.

So too is the question of whether people will really trust a machine to make a diagnosis, give out tablets or do an operation?

Perhaps we have to accept that humans are far from perfect and mistakes are inevitable in health care, just as they are when we put humans behind the wheel of a car. So if driverless cars are going to reduce traffic accidents and congestion then maybe doctorless hospitals will one day save more lives and reduce the cost of health care?

The Conversation

Anjali Jaiprakash, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Medical Robotics, Queensland University of Technology; Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology, and Ross Crawford, Professor of Orthopaedic Research, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Robots in the skies: how Outback Joe was found and rescued

By Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

Lost and thirsty in the Australian bush, Outback Joe waited eight years. And finally, in September this year, he was found – by a flying robot.

Outback Joe is not a real person, but for a week each September over six of the past eight years, he lay in a field waiting to be found. A stuffed dummy in a high-visibility shirt and Akubra hat, Outback Joe was the target of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Challenge Outback Rescue, an international robotics competition.

Outback Joe has a Facebook page. He’s on Twitter. He likes to go for walks in the country, but sometimes he gets lost. Joe could be you.

Outback Joe is lost and has collapsed in a peanut field. He needs to be found, and desperately needs water.
Stefan Hrabar/CSIRO/UAV Challenge, Author provided

Stories in the media about people getting lost are unfortunately common. Some are lost adventurers, but most are not. Typically, it’s the very young who wander off, the elderly who get confused, or the inexperienced, who don’t appreciate just how easily they can lose track of where they are.

Searching for the lost is a race against time. We have all seen in the media great successes when the lost are found, but also the tragedies when time runs out.

For many years, searching from the air has been a valuable tool, and is required in certain situations. But the opportunity to undertake an aerial search is sometimes limited due to a lack of availability of aircraft or pilots, or practical restrictions such as poor weather.

As technological capabilities continue to develop, search and rescue organisations around the world are keen to use robotic aircraft to help find lost people. Known as remotely piloted aircraft in official circles (and more commonly as drones), these aircraft are usually small, cheap to buy – especially compared to traditional aircraft – and somewhat expendable, as there are no people onboard.

And that’s where we came in.

Lost and found (eight years later)

A group of organisations in Australia launched the UAV Challenge Search and Rescue Competition in 2006, offering a A$50,000 prize for the first team in the world to find and rescue our lost bushwalker, Outback Joe. We specifically developed the competition to guide teams to create low-cost solutions that, one day, could be used for real search and rescue missions.

The Challenge required each team to launch their robotic aircraft from Kingaroy Airport, in rural Queensland, and head out to a large search area approximately four kilometres away.

A robot aircraft returning from a successful mission to rescue Outback Joe.
Stefan Hrabar/CSIRO/UAV Challenge, Author provided

The aircraft had to cover the search area, locate Joe and drop him a 500 millilitre water bottle, ensuring it landed within 100 metres of his position. The aircraft typically flew for up to an hour, and covered between 50 and 100 kilometres of ground during the search.

The UAV Challenge was a true challenge – it wasn’t something that would be completed overnight. In fact, it was a rescue mission that kept 350 teams and more than 2,000 team members busy for eight years.

Some teams came close as time went by, but it wasn’t until 2014 that a team of passionate enthusiasts from Canberra finally won the grand prize. Three other teams also completed the Challenge successfully this year.

The secret to the winning entry was their accuracy of the water bottle drop. The aircraft automatically flew a special pattern around Outback Joe’s location to estimate the wind direction. The on-board computer then calculated the best flight path over Joe taking into account the wind. The result was spectacular, with the water bottle landing just 2.6 metres from Joe.

The moment just before CanberraUAV dropped a water bottle on a parachute to Outback Joe. Outback Joe is in the blue rectangle.
CanberraUAV, Author provided

So did the UAV Challenge do its job and drive down the cost of producing highly capable robot aircraft for search and rescue and inspire innovation in the field? Happily, I think the answer is yes.

The teams that successfully completed the mission did so using specifically designed electronics and new autopilot technologies (which, incidentally, were inspired by the UAV Challenge itself).

One radio communications device developed by a Brisbane-based company has now sold several thousand units worldwide. Another company, based in Adelaide, developed a safety system for teams that has been commercially successful around the world.

The open source software movement embraced the UAV Challenge, seeing three of the most widely used low-cost autopilot developers enter the event. In 2014 alone, software for two of these auto-pilots has been downloaded more than 170,000 times by users across the globe. Flying robots with an automatic search ability could assist Australian State Emergency Services to make rescues more efficient.

The dream of search and rescue organisations is that in the near future they will be able to have small fleets of robot aircraft, each costing no more than a few hundred dollars, stored and waiting for the day they can be used to save a life.

We know this will be possible, in time. The UAV Challenge has demonstrated that – and Outback Joe lives to tell the tale of that time he got lost in the bush.

The Conversation

Jonathan Roberts is a co-founder of the UAV Challenge Outback Rescue.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Pyne signals more autonomy for unis could mean higher fees for students

Alexandra Hansen, The Conversation

Education minister Christopher Pyne has given his strongest indication yet that university fees will be deregulated, removing the cap on what universities can charge students.

In a speech at The Policy Exchange in London, Minister Pyne declined to pre-empt any budget announcements, but emphasised the deregulatory nature of the Liberal government and insisted universities need more autonomy.

Pyne said the government had already started this process by removing “burdensome” regulations and reporting requirements, and assured they would continue steps to “set higher education providers free”.

Speculation has grown that the government will remove caps on students fees since the release of a report by David Kemp and Andrew Norton, which said the demand-driven system for university places was a net positive, but continued funding may require a rise in student fees.

“Government investment alone is not enough to ensure a well-functioning higher education sector,” Pyne said.

He said Australia’s universities had much to learn from those in the US, with uncapped student fees meaning greater competition and thus higher standards in the sector.

He said the competitive nature of US universities bred a focus on competition for students and student loyalty towards the institutions, which he said often translated into philanthropic donations after graduation.

He quoted University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor Warren Bebbington who said Australia’s higher education system has the opportunity to be as diverse as the States’, but “without the crippling debts”.

Putting students further into debt and decreasing the equity of the system are the main reasons for opposition to fee deregulation, but Pyne said providing tertiary education at a high standard with a competitive approach meant students would “win out”.

La Trobe University Vice Chancellor John Dewar said given that the government was unlikely to increase spending on higher education, an obvious source of funding would be to increase the proportion of cost that students contribute themselves.

Over the last 20 years, government investment per student has steadily declined under both parties in government, Dewar said.

Universities have managed this by expanding rapidly, he said, first, on the back of the boom in international enrolments during the 2000s; and then, from 2009 onwards, through the growth brought about by the demand driven system.

“This dynamic of growth cannot continue – there is now very little unmet student demand locally; the international market is unpredictable; and increased government investment in higher education per student does not seem likely.

“So, the reality is that something has to give if universities are to serve the national interest effectively,

“A deregulation of fee setting is an obvious next step for a government with a deregulatory agenda,” he said.

Dewar said if this was to take place it was vital there was a comprehensive scholarship scheme in place for students who might otherwise be deterred from coming to university by increased charges.

Vice-Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology Peter Coaldrake said the US system illustrated both the promises and pitfalls of deregulation.

“It is not itself a deregulated system, instead it is a sprawling mix of different types with persistent problems with quality alongside the strongest research institutions in the world.

“The task for us is to take what can be beneficial and to avoid the downsides,” Coaldrake said.

He said the emphasis in reform should not be on what institutions or even policy makers might want the sector to look like, but on what present and future students needed.

Co-author of the demand driven system review Andrew Norton said it looked like a key recommendation of his review, to open eligibility to Commonwealth supported places to all domestic students wherever they study, would be accepted.

One reason for implementing that recommendation, Norton said, was to encourage competition between higher education providers should fees be deregulated.

“While average fees will almost certainly increase if their current legal maximum levels are lifted or abolished, it is important that reasonably priced options remain available.

“While some students may be happy to pay a premium to attend a top 50 global research university, there is no evidence that research-intensive universities in Australia do a better job with teaching.

“Students should carefully compare the costs and benefits of different higher education options,” he said.

Higher education policy analyst Hamish Coates said pricing was a complex issue personally, socially and financially, and the higher education sector needed to “unlock new dollars” to be internationally competitive.

How this is managed is where it would get difficult, he said, because a close eye had to be kept on equity.

The Conversation

Alexandra Hansen is Editor at The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Beyond the beat-em-up: video games are good for young people

Daniel Johnson, Queensland University of Technology; Christian Jones, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Jane Burns, University of Melbourne

Research and media attention has usually focused on possible negative impacts of video games. But a clear case to support such links is yet to emerge and even people who argue that video games have a negative impact acknowledge that any such effect size is relatively small.

Now, there’s an emerging body of research focusing on the potential positive influences of video games.

Our research group conducted a comprehensive review of research papers and reports from around the world to explore the role of video games in young people’s lives.

We are interested in both gaming and positive psychology, so our aim was to investigate the current research linking video game play and flourishing mental health. We reviewed over 200 papers and mapped relevant connections and associations.

We found that playing video games positively influences young people’s emotional state, vitality, engagement, competence and self-acceptance. And that it’s associated with higher self-esteem, optimism, resilience, healthy relationships and social connections and functioning.

Clearly excessive video game play and technology use is not good for mental health and we acknowledge that excessive play is associated with negative outcomes, such as anxiety and insomnia.

But the overall picture turns the view that playing video games makes us socially isolated, aggressive, and lazy, on its head. Instead, our research suggests that, in the majority of cases, video games can actually contribute to three different aspects of young people’s well-being – emotional, social and psychological.

Here are some of our key findings:

  • moderate (non-excessive) levels of playing are associated with positive emotions and improved mood, improved emotion regulation and emotional stability and the reduction of emotional disturbances;
  • playing video games is a healthy means of relaxation, stress reduction and socialising; and
  • people who play video games in moderation have significantly less depressed mood and higher self-esteem (compared to those who don’t play or who play excessively).

Emerging research suggests that how young people play, as well as with whom they play, may be more important in terms of well-being than what they play.

Feelings of relatedness or flow while playing, and playing with people you know are better predictors of well-being than the genre of game played.

Our research opens the door to using video games in approaches to well-being. Translating this research into practical guidelines about gaming and well-being that can be used by parents and professionals is critical.

There are several ways of doing this. One is a “well-being rating system” that we are developing for games.

In contrast to existing rating systems, which highlight negative aspects of games, such as violence or offensive language, our rating system identifies their likely positive influences, such as which games are likely to foster teamwork and connections with others.

We know that video games captivate their audience, with more than 95% of Australian homes with children under the age of 18 owning a device for playing them.

Our research provides an opportunity to use video games as a way to empower young people to manage their own mental health and well-being, and potentially circumvent psychological distress.

Key questions remain for future research including identifying what constitutes a healthy or moderate amount of play for people at different stages of their lives and how best to leverage the well-being benefits of video games in a therapeutic setting.

The Conversation

Daniel Johnson is Director, Games Research Lab (QUT) at Queensland University of Technology; Christian Jones is Associate Dean (Research), Faculty of Arts and Business at University of the Sunshine Coast, and Jane Burns is CEO Young and Well CRC at University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: the evolution of biofuels

Explainer: the evolution of biofuels

Ian O’Hara, Queensland University of Technology

It’s one of the key challenges of our generation: transforming our global energy use from emissions-intensive, non-renewable fossil fuels to low-carbon, sustainable energy technologies.

The challenge for the transportation sector is particularly acute. Technology options are limited, consumers are diverse and there are stringent quality requirements (think about jet fuels).

While global demand for transportation fuels continues to grow, easily-extractable crude oil reserves are being depleted and much of the new crude oil production capacity in the next decade will come from higher-cost deep water wells and oil sands.

Biofuels, unlike fossil-based fuels such as unleaded petrol and diesel, are manufactured from renewable biological materials (also called feedstocks).

The public discussion on biofuels in recent years has centred on the narrow food-vs-fuel debate. The reality is that we require a sustainable supply of both food and energy to maintain our quality of life and provide improved opportunities for people in the developing world.

‘First-generation’ biofuels

First-generation biofuels are produced from mostly plant-based starch, sugars and oils. The sugar produced from crops such as sugarcane and sweet sorghum and from starch-based grains such as maize and sorghum can be readily fermented into ethanol.

(Ethanol – the active ingredient in your favourite alcoholic beverages – is often used as motor fuel, including in V8 supercars.)

The oil extracted from oil-seed crops – including canola, soy, Pongamia and Jatropha – and from animal-based tallow, can be converted into a fuel called “biodiesel”.

Unfortunately, starch, sugar and oil crops are also used for human consumption and livestock feed and, as a result, there can be competition for feedstocks, particularly in times of short supply.

This can affect the price and supply of staple food ingredients. And significant increases in feedstock price can make biofuel production uneconomic relative to existing fossil-based fuels.

‘Second-generation’ biofuels

In contrast, second-generation biofuels use lower-value biomass residues – biological material from living or recently living organisms. Such residues can come from forestry, agriculture, municipal solid wastes or dedicated energy crops.

Biomass can be turned into biofuels through a number of advanced processes, including:

  • biochemical processes which produce fermentable sugars from cellulose (the major constituent of paper)
  • thermochemical processes such as pyrolysis (in which organic material is decomposed at high temperatures without oxygen)
  • algal oil production.

There is a huge range of technologies being developed to produce second-generation biofuels.

Fermentable sugars from biomass: Biomass is very resistant to breaking down. The plant has to be pretreated to break open its fibre structure and access the large amount of sugars in its cell wall. Then enzymes are used to convert cellulose into glucose (sugar).

Ethanol and a variety of higher-value chemicals can be produced from the fermentable sugars.

Thermochemical processes: Under high temperatures and pressures, biomass can produce an energy-rich gas, a solid char or a liquid bio-crude. Each of these products can be used as an energy source, or upgraded into other fuels and chemicals.

Algae oils: Algae use sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce oils. Algal oil can be harvested from large-scale open ponds or closed algal photobioreactors.

This oil can then be used in the production of fuels and chemicals or as a nutritional supplement.

Sugars to oils: Conventional yeasts convert fermentable sugars such as glucose into ethanol. But several organisms, including some algae and yeasts, can convert sugars into oils.

These oils can then be used as fuel.

Jet fuel production: Aircraft have particular requirements for fuel quality standards and limited alternative fuel options.

Many of the world’s leading airlines and aviation companies are working together through the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Users Group (SAFUG) to accelerate the development and commercialisation of sustainable aviation fuels, including biofuels.

Members of SAFUG include Boeing, Qantas, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand.


Much has been said about sustainability when it comes to fossil fuels. But how do second-generation biofuels stack up?

The variation in feedstocks and production processes means all biofuels have different levels of sustainability.

Figuring out the sustainability of biofuels is complex. You have to account for:

  • the environmental impacts of growing the initial crop
  • embodied energy: did you get more energy out than you put into growing the crop and the production process?
  • the greenhouse gas reduction benefits of the fuel.

Whole-of-system impacts are captured in a life-cycle assessment. Biofuels policy makers have to develop robust methodologies so they can understand how indirect land use change affects sustainable biofuels productions.

A number of global organisations, such as the International Standards Organisation and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, are currently developing sustainability assessment criteria for biofuels.

Second-generation biofuels in Australia

With significant biomass feedstocks – especially in the sugarcane and forestry industries – Australia is well placed to be a leader in commercialising second-generation biofuels.

Companies including car manufacturers, trucking operators, airlines, mining groups, fuel distributors, and consumers, are coming out in support of biofuels.

But the challenge of transforming our transport energy use is complex. It requires a significant long-term commitment to policy measures that support industry development.

With the right policy measures, the uptake of second-generation biofuels in Australia could be rapid – only constrained by our capacity to build new production facilities and supply.

Ian O’Hara is Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.