Australia is known for its ingenuity, and ability to invent brilliant solutions to tough problems. We take a look at 4 world-beaters - the Black Box Flight Recorder, Fairlight Sampler, Anti-Hacking Kernel and QuBit - whose origins should be far better known with the right Electronics Marketing.
You've probably heard of great Australian electronic breakthroughs like the Jindalee Over-the-Horizon Radar and the WiFi Hotspot. However, these next 4 you may not know - or know they were invented here. Could it be that the fabulous electronics behind inventions are far less well-marketed than the inventions themselves? Let's see. You can also see how we do Aussie electronics marketing here.
1. The Black Box Flight Recorder - 1953
The Black Box Flight Recorder (which is orange not black) records flight data and voices from the cockpit of aeroplanes.
The continuing search for missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 is a stark reminder of the crucial role played by Black Box Flight Recorders. With no wreck and no flight recorder, uncovering the cause of this disappearance will be difficult.
However, it all began in 1953 in Australia, when chemist David Warren was working for the Aeronautical Research Laboratory, seeking reasons why there were so many crashes of the Comet, a new British aircraft.
Tapes that won't burn
Warren saw the need to record flight data and analyse it after a crash, yet conventional recording tapes couldn't survive the burning plane. At a trade fair, he espied the Miniphon wire recorder. It became the basis of his black box voice and data recorder.
At first Aussies don't need it
By the late fifties, he and his team at ARL had a working prototype, and showed it to Australian Aviation authorities. They couldn’t see much use for it, but the British and the Americans certainly did, and began manufacturing black box flight recorders on Warren’s design.
In June 1960, 29 people died in a Fokker F27 aircraft crash-landing at Mackay in Queensland. A board of inquiry couldn't determine the cause of the crash, and recommended that all airliners be fitted with flight recorders. A rapid turnaround.
Then Aussies mandate it
In 1961, the Federal Government made this recommendation mandatory. A further disaster at Winton in 1967 saw Australia become the first country to make both flight data and cockpit voice mandatory on all turbo-props and jets.
A global success story
Ever since, black box recorders have proved invaluable in uncovering the cause of aviation accidents, and helped make aviation much safer. A truly game-changing Aussie invention which has been a global success.
2. The Fairlight CMI Digital Sampler - 1979
If you're not a 'music head', you may not know the difference between a sampler and a synthesizer. A sampler records ‘samples’ of sounds that can be played back from computer memory, while the synthesizer simulates the sounds of other instruments.
A beachside invention
The Fairlight digital sampler, produced in 1979, was one of the first commercially available products that made polyphonic playback of samples possible. It was designed by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie who named it after the Sydney suburb near Manly where they lived.
A failed synthesizer
Vogel and Ryrie were the first to use computer technology for sound, and their invention influenced everything that followed. The irony is that the two were trying to build a synthesizer but couldn't find a way to create sounds digitally that were similar to acoustic musical instruments.‘We regarded using recorded real-life sounds [sampling] as a compromise - as cheating ,’ they later acknowledged ‘and we didn't feel particularly proud of it.’
Crude, expensive components
The sampler comprised a rack processing unit, a musical keyboard, a computer keyboard, a green/black computer screen and a light-sensitive pen that controlled a menu-driven graphical interface. In the late 1970s, PC technology was in its infancy and the available components were crude, limited in capacity and expensive.
Price no market barrier
The early Fairlight CMI samplers cost around $25,000, but cost didn't stop them being a runaway success. Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby and Kate Bush were among the first customers. Many others followed, including Stevie Wonder, Jean Michel Jarre and John Farnham for his album 'Whispering Jack'.
A humbling end
Despite the high price and hundreds of famous customers, Fairlight the company became bankrupt in the middle 1980s. ‘We were reliant on sales to pay the wages and it was a horrendously expensive business,’ Peter Vogel explained years later. ‘Our sales were good right up to the last minute, but we just could not finance the expansion and the R&D.’
Sadly, this great Aussie invention didn't stand the test of time, due to inexperience and poor business planning. A sober lesson in electronics marketing.
3.The seL4 Anti-hacking Microkernel - 2011
The 'anti-hacking kernel' protects computer operating systems from attack by hacking.
The kernel is the core of the computer's operating system and the seL4 micro-kernel was designed to stop common attack forms like code injection. When hackers inject malware code into vulnerable applications, they gain control of the application; if they inject malware into the kernel, they hit the jackpot: they gain control of that computer and any network it controls.
'Functional correctness' required
The only known way to guarantee that the kernel is not corrupted by malware is ‘functional verification’ to show ‘functional correctness’. To do this, the kernel must contain safety properties which ensure it will never crash or perform an unsafe operation, as it would if injected by malware.
The first secure kernel
Although many teams have been working on open source L4 kernel projects, seL4 is the first secure kernel in the world, that can provide complete proof of the functional correctness of a general-purpose OS (Operating System) kernel.
Vital for critical networks
This makes seL4 very attractive to organisations with critical networks - like financial institutions (databases, systems and transactions), the military (aircraft and drones), commercial manufacturers of avionics and medical implants, and especially Industrial Control Systems (ICS). As was proven by the Stuxnet virus and its descendants, ICS (which often control critical networks like power, water and transport) are highly exposed to hacking. The same goes for medical devices, motor cars and building management systems in office blocks.
Well on the way to success
seL4is the product of seven years of research at NICTA, which followed a further eight years of research at the University of New South Wales. NICTA has partnered with United States military technology manufacturer General Dynamics for the release. General Dynamics sees a role for seL4 in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to make them resistant to hacking. For Sel4, this breakthrough looks well on the way to commercialisation. Watch out for updates on this Aussie breakthrough.
4. The Quantum Bit (Qubit) - 2012
The quantum bit could revolutionise computers, by harnessing quantum computing to enable far more powerful, yet far smaller computers.
Working with atoms
While Australia is very good at developing quality software, the Americans lead the world when it comes to silicon. A team at UNSW is about to change all that: they've s built the world’s smallest transistor from a single atom and the world’s smallest silicon wires that are a thousand times narrower than a human hair. The unit is called a QuBit and it works at an entirely different level: atoms and electrons.
The Quantum Bit was constructed at UNSW in the Australian National Fabrication Facility with support from researchers at the University of Melbourne and the ANU. Apparently, the big challenge was the fragility of the environment and difficulty in controlling it: coherent qubits can literally ‘decohere’ in front of your eyes, a problem that stumped scientists since 1998. Now two UNSW-led research teams have shown that silicon can be used to make functioning qubits, which brings quantum computing a giant step closer to reality.
Accuracy and stability the key
The key is the accuracy and stability established by the Australian researchers, together with using silicon to create the qubits. Combining a ground-breaking Australian invention with accepted computer materials, has made functional quantum computers a much more realistic prospect. In August 2015, Dr Michelle Simmons from the UNSW team won the CSIRO Eureka Award for Leadership for her work on the QuBit project.
It's a bit early to tell (excuse the pun), but keep your eyes out for the QuBit in coming years. It might be even bigger than Wi-Fi - that other great Aussie computing breakthrough.
If you didn't know these Australian world-beaters or that they are Australian, don't feel badly. Many Australian inventions aren't given the limelight they deserve due to a lack of electronics marketing. Read more about how we market Aussie electronic innovations here.
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