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Eight Examples of high-impact Australian innovation

Posted 3 years ago

Australian innovation has an incredible influence around the world. Despite our relatively small population, several ingenious Australian inventions have been successfully commercialised to have global impact.

  • The black box flight recorder is now included on every commercial aircraft;
  • Spray-on skin significantly reduces recovery time and scarring in hospitals and surgeries around the world;
  • The technology behind Google Maps now helps billions of people find their way;
  • Our polymer bank notes are used by more than 50 countries to ensure currency lasts longer; and
  • Wifi technology has changed the way people everywhere connect, work and communicate.


Australian Innovation: Global Impact

Let’s take a closer look at eight exciting examples of Australian innovation which have been embraced internationally:

1. Black box flight recorder
The black box flight recorder was invented by Australian scientist Dr David Warren, who lost his own father to an aircraft tragedy in 1934. The black box flight recorder records the last conversations between crew and other sounds inside the plane before it crashes, and it is virtually indestructible, providing critical evidence in any post-crash investigation. A black box is now installed on every commercial plane around the world, but it was in Australia that they were first made compulsory for all commercial flights.

Fun fact: The black box is not actually black. It is manufactured in a bright orange colour called ‘international orange’, making it easier to find in crash-site rubble.

2. Spray-on skin
In 1999, Perth-based plastic surgeon Professor Fiona Wood patented her spray-on skin technique. This Australian innovation involves taking a small patch of the victim’s healthy skin and using it to grow new skin cells in a laboratory. The new skin cells are then sprayed on the victim’s damaged skin, where they continue to grow and cover the affected area. This technology, commercialised through Clinical Cell Culture Pty Ltd (now AvitaMedical), is a world-first and significantly reduces recovery time and scarring. It has been used on more than 1000 patients around the world to great success.

3. Google Maps
Danish brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen developed the platform for Google Maps in Sydney in the early 2000s. Along with Australians Neil Gordon and Stephen Ma, they founded a small start-up company called “Where 2 Technologies” in 2003. The mapping technology began life as an application called Expedition, and the following year it was bought by internet giant Google and the technology was turned into what we now know as Google Maps. Today, more than 1 billion people use Google Maps each month.

4. Polymer bank notes
Australia invented polymer banknotes in response to high-quality forgeries of our initial paper currency which had emerged within a year of its introduction.

This spurred the Reserve Bank to join forces with CSIRO and The University of Melbourne – a great example of collaboration in innovation – to develop new, more secure currency. Research into the problem began in 1968. The first plastic bank note to be put into circulation was the $10 note, released in 1988 to celebrate the bicentenary; in 1996, Australia became the first country to have a complete set of plastic currency.

Traditionally, bank notes are made from paper, cloth fibres or a combination of both. This Australian innovation has led to bank notes being produced using a special polymer which, along with a series of in-built security devices, makes them almost impossible to counterfeit. They also last about 10 times longer than traditional bank notes, making them more environmentally sustainable. Now more than 50 countries have switched to using polymer bank notes.

5. Electronic pacemaker
Artificial pacemakers send small electric charges into the heart to help it maintain a regular beat. The world’s first artificial pacemaker was created by Australian Dr Mark Lidwill, an anaesthetist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, in the 1920’s. Lidwill used the invention to revive a stillborn baby – small pulses of electicity were sent through a needle directly into the child’s heart. After 10 minutes, the equipment was switched off, the heart continued to beat and the infant made a full recovery.

It took another three decades, however, before the first implantable pacemaker was inserted, in Sweden in 1958. Within three years of this, the first Australian implant insertion was performed at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. In 1963, an Australian pacemaker company, Telectronics, was founded in Sydney. This innovative company designed many of the features of transvenous leads and pulse generators we take for granted today. Now, more than three million people worldwide rely on pacemakers to keep their hearts beating properly.

6. Wi-Fi technology
In 1992 John O’ Sullivan and the CSIRO developed Wi-Fi technology, used by more than a billion people around the world today. The core parts of the technology came out of research in the mid-1970s in the field of radio astronomy, when John and his colleagues at the CSIRO were originally looking for the faint echoes of black holes.

Today, wi-fi technology is incorporated into phones, televisions, cameras, laptops, printers, routers and games consoles, to name just a few. In fact, WLAN technology is estimated to be in more than five billion devices worldwide. CSIRO have a great infogram showing how wi-fi was invented, on their website.

7. Inflatable escape slide and raft
More aircraft innovation! In 1965 Jack Grant, a Qantas operations safety superintendent, invented an inflatable aircraft escape slide. Rather than using fixed stairs and separate inflatable life rafts, Grant envisioned an inflatable slide device that could be launched in a crash on water, allowing people to slide down, stay on the slide, release it from the aircraft, and float away from the distressed aircraft in safety.

With the perseverance characteristic of Australian inventors, Grant formulated and refined the specification of the slide raft until it was accepted by all key organisations including the United States Federal Aviation Administration and the British Air Registration Board. The slide-raft was then fitted to all large jet aircraft: Boeing, Airbus, Douglas DC1, Lockheed 1011 and Concorde. It is now mandatory safety equipment on all major airlines.

8. The plastic wine cask
Arguably one of our most iconic inventions, the plastic wine cask is still popular today, with one in every three glasses of wine drunk in Australia coming out of a cask.

In the 1960’s, glass bottles were the standard container used to store and transport wine. A South Australian family winery, Angove’s, was looking for a new method to ship their wines in bulk as well as keep wine fresh after opening. Inspired by the European ‘bladder’ design, Thomas Angove and Bill Marshall developed a polyethylene sack in 1966 which preserved the wine’s freshness, collapsing as wine was poured. This prevented air from spoiling the wine. A plastic ‘tap’ was added to the design later.

It is uncertain who was responsible for later deciding the wine cask could be affixed to a Hills hoist (another great Australian innovation!) at backyard barbeques.

With such a proud history of invention, it will be incredible to see the types of Australian innovation which emerge on the world stage over the next few decades. With a continued national focus on research and development, and support for early-stage commercialisation, we have the opportunity to add many more world-changing inventions to this list in the years to come.

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