From space beer and satellites to self-driving cars

23 Nov 2017

Author: Bec Crew



With inventions that led him to NASA and Toyota via the world’s first space beer, Dr Alex Green is proof of one thing – the future of Australian innovation sits centre on the world stage.
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“I was there before it was cool,” says robotics scientist Dr Alex Green, insisting that his earliest experience with autonomous vehicles – the cars that drive themselves – was anything but glamorous.

Long before the likes of Google, Tesla, and Mercedes-Benz plunged headfirst into the driverless car market, Green was knee-deep in the belly of a cumbersome eight-wheeled vehicle in a Sydney robotics lab, retrofitting it with the kind of self-driving capabilities that could change the world in the coming decades.

That PhD “grunt work” launched his career, and since then, Green has gone on to work on encrypted radio systems for the US government and satellite devices for NASA, while also serving as an expert witness in a murder trial.

And that’s only the half of it.

Not your average student

"I was definitely not an outstanding student by any stretch,” Green admits of his high school years, when he was far more interested in restoring junk cars and motorbikes in his garage.

But all that hands-on practice put him in good stead for completing a Bachelor of Engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) in 2003, which led to a PhD at the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre of Field Robotics – an experience he found to be invaluable, but incredibly tough.

"It was one of the best robotics labs in the world at the time, and I was surrounded by all the top students from across the globe," he says, adding that it was one of the most challenging –  and rewarding – experiences of his life.

“It was an amazing experience, and I was incredibly fortunate to form tight relationships with people in the lab who helped me through it.”

While many might consider their time at university as a necessary hurdle to clear before embarking on a career, Green's PhD years have continued to steer his trajectory, even a decade later. Whether he's working with target practice robots, space beer, or satellite technology, there's one constant that's been running throughout his incredibly dynamic career – he always ends up working with old friends from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics.

Cyber security and murder

On completing his PhD in 2007, Green joined a small Sydney-based telecommunications company called Etherstack, where he worked on radio and telecommunications systems considered critical to US national security. 

“We were part of this handful of Australian companies that were punching above their weight,” he says. “It showed me that if you have a few smart people, and you pick the right niche, you can make a big impact.”

In 2010, Green decided to go out on his own as a contract engineer, and that’s when things took an unexpected turn and he found himself serving as an expert witness on three separate cases involving cyber harassment, manslaughter, and even murder.

 “There was very little direct evidence, so I had to dig through all the computer evidence that they had. My job was not to pass judgement, but to see what the technical truth was."

Space beer and satellites

It was around this time that Green reconnected with some old friends from the Australian Centre of Field Robotics, who asked him for help with their new company, Marathon Targets, which makes target practice robots for US and Australian Special Forces. 

Then another friend from his PhD years, Dr Jason Held, brought him on at his newly launched company, Saber Astronautics, which creates cutting-edge technology for satellites, space operations, and flight software.

But it wasn’t all serious space business.

“We made the first beer that’s certified for drinking in outer space,” says Green. “It’s a low-carbonation, high-flavour beer, because your sense of taste is dulled in space, and you don’t want bubbles to form in your stomach in zero gravity.”

At Saber, Green was involved in a NASA-funded project that led to the invention of the DragEN Space Tether, a device that pulls decommissioned satellites back down to Earth and destroys them – carefully.

He was invited to test the mechanism at NASA’s Reduced Gravity Office (RGO) in Houston, Texas, which involved riding in the infamous ‘vomit comet’ – a specially fitted aircraft that introduces astronauts to zero-gravity spaceflight.

“It was an amazing experience to work at NASA for a couple of weeks,” he says. “It was everything you could have dreamed it to be.”

Predicting the future

Green still shares an office with Jason Held at Saber, but is now splitting his time between the University of New South Wales (UNSW), where he lectures at the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, and the Toyota Research Institute in San Francisco, which recently brought him on to find the best automotive radars for their self-driving cars.

“I graduated more than 10 years ago in driverless cars when they weren’t cool, and now everyone’s doing it,” he laughs. “It’s impossible to predict.”

But one thing he does know for sure is that wherever his career takes him next, Green will always call Australia home.

“I’m a bit of an Australian at heart,” he says. “I always feel like I have to come back.”

As for where the rest of the world is headed, that’s anyone’s guess, but Green says that in the coming decades, it’s not killer technology that we’re going to have to worry about.

"The risks to the world are financial and political, they’re not technological. I don’t see a future where AI is going to try and kill us,” he says.

“There are many, many cool things to come – advancements in medicine, genetics, and combining robots with people. And if driverless cars can be made to work reliably, what you could do with them is just incredible. They could literally change the world.” No doubt Green will be behind the wheel.