Congratulations to The Australian National University (ANU) expert Professor Hanna Kurniawati, who has been appointed as the SmartSat CRC Professorial Chair for System Autonomy, Intelligence, and Decision Making.
SmartSat is Australia’s leading space research centre – where a team of Australia’s top researchers come together to spearhead the development of next generation space technologies.
“I am grateful and excited for this opportunity. Space technologies are entering a new era that will become increasingly important to our daily lives, and being in the Southern hemisphere, Australia has a geographical advantage in this domain,” she said.
Professor Kurniawati is based in the ANU School of Computing, and has significant experience in robotics, planning under uncertainty, robot motion planning, reinforcement learning, and integrated planning and learning.
She has spent much of her career researching ways to develop decision-making technologies that would enable robots to operate more reliably and more robustly in cluttered and confined remote environments, as well as in crowded urban environments.
“Specifically, I focus on computational methods and representations to enable robust decision theory to become practical software tools, with applications in robotics,” she says.
“Such software tools will enable robots to design their own strategies, such as deciding what data to use, how to gather the data, and how to move, for accomplishing various tasks well, despite various modelling errors and types of uncertainty, and despite limited to no information about the system and its operating environment.”
The SmartSat CRC consortium has been funded by the Australian Government to develop know-how and technologies in advanced telecommunications and IoT connectivity, intelligent satellite systems and Earth observation next generation data services. Kurniawati will join an experienced SmartSat team, including fellow ANU expert Professor Kirk McKenzie who is the Professorial Chair of Precision Measurement in Space.
We can’t wait to see what Hanna brings to this exciting new role!
Research that stands the ‘Test of Time’
In 2008, Kurniawati had her work on how to get robots to behave well published in Robotics: Science and Systems IV with co-authors from the National University of Singapore (NUS).
“We developed an effective algorithm to help the robot make the best possible decisions when faced with a number of puzzling scenarios while also being able to understand the consequences of its decisions,” she says.
In doing so, their algorithm overcame a barrier that had hampered robust decision making for more than four decades due to high computational complexity.
Their foundational work has been expanded and adopted to instruct robots how to move objects, to study aircraft collision avoidance tech in planes and pedestrian avoidance features in self-driving cars.
“Our 2008 work was really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how promising the future of AI really is,” Kurniawati says. “Interestingly, our methods have also been applied outside of robotics, such as helping identify vulnerabilities in computer networks.”
In 2021, Kurniawati and her associates were recognised for their contribution to the field of robotics with the prestigious Robotics Science and Systems Test of Time award.
It is only given after at least 10 years has passed since the research was first published and this is just the second time anyone has received the award.
Professor Kurniawati and her team at the ANU College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics (CECC) were also awarded two major grants by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in 2021.
The ARC projects saw Kurniawati work to form the Australian Robotic and Asset Management (ARIAM) Hub together with USyd ACFR(lead of ARIAM Hub), QUT Centre for Robotics, and ten industry partners on intelligent robots that help safely monitor and maintain bridges, buildings, offshore oil rigs, and other complex structures; and with Safran Electronics and Defense Australasia Pty Ltd on an AI-based co-pilot for helicopter rescue missions.
Kurniawati grew up in Indonesia where she was a fan of the earless robotic cat, Doraemon, from a Japanese manga series, as well as the robots from Star Wars films. She earned her undergraduate degree in Computer Science from the University of Indonesia in 2001.
During her doctoral work at NUS, Kurniawati did an internship at INRIA — France’s National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology — and then worked in Singapore and the United States as a Research Scientist at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, MIT before coming to Australia to join the School of ITEE, University of Queensland (UQ) in 2012.
Kurniawati was recruited to ANU in 2019 when Senior Professor Thiébaux asked if she’d be interested in the Computer Science Futures Fellow position.
“It looked like a good opportunity, and so I applied,” Kurniawati said.
Once Kurniawati had accepted a position, the School of Computing nominated her for the ANU Futures Fellowship as well. The two fellowships enabled Kurniawati to set up her robotics lab and maintain a staff, which she said was “vital for the fundamental research I do and for starting a fruitful industry engagement”.
Kurniawati is now an Australian citizen but still misses Indonesian food. She is always on the lookout for new Indonesian restaurants in Canberra.
Educating the next generation
Kurniawati said she enjoys teaching at ANU. “It keeps you young,” she said with a grin, adding that her students “ask questions that you might not have thought about before”.
As a Professor with the ANU School of Computing, Kurniawati supervises research students. She said that teaching has kept her in direct contact with a valuable talent pool.
“Some of my PhD students were my Honors year students. Once they finish their PhD, some of them might want to continue for a little bit longer as a postdoc with my group before launching their own respective careers,” she said, charting a course for her protégés that she herself took not long ago.
More about Professor Kurniawati’s research: AI co-pilots to make air rescue faster, safer