From defending our nation to protecting our reefs

Reef survey trials of a WAM-V surface vessel

Credit: Scott Bainbridge, courtesy of AIMS

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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

24 September 2021

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How a drone sparked a new dream

JCU Engineering Alumni Melanie Olsen grew up in rural El Arish, not knowing what her future would hold. After a JCU lecturer visited her high school, Melanie’s passion for maths and science found new life and led her to pursue engineering. With a career that has led her from the Australian Department of Defence (DoD) to marine technology, Melanie has been around the world, under the ocean and even back inside the University.

Growing up in El Arish, Melanie wasn’t sure what she wanted to pursue after high school. However, when JCU Adjunct Senior Lecturer Dr Peter Grabau visited Melanie’s high school and did an introductory session on JCU Engineering, Melanie’s passion was ignited. “He had this really cool drone, and this was in the year 2000 when drones didn’t exist,” Melanie says. “Dr Peter Grabau said that they worked on robotics at JCU, and I liked maths and physics so it was an exciting career option. I put JCU Engineering as my first preference on my university application.”

A highlight of Melanie’s university study was the support she received from both JCU and her support network. “The engineering support staff were amazing,” she says. “When I needed help, they were there. The extracurricular activities that they coordinated were really well done. Having their support and making friends through those activities made uni feel like a home away from home.

“I also really appreciated the financial support that I received. My family didn’t have a large amount of resources to dedicate to my studies, so it made a huge difference that there were great scholarships on offer. These really helped me pursue my education.”

Melanie Olsen operating a water drone.
JCU Alumni Melanie Olsen.
Left: Melanie Olsen operating a water drone. Right: JCU Alumni Melanie Olsen. (Supplied by Melanie Olsen.)

Marching into the Australian Department of Defence

After graduating with a Bachelor of Engineering — majoring in computer systems — Melanie went straight into a graduate program with the Defence Materiel Organisation in Canberra.

“I had no idea what to expect,” Melanie says. “I ended up doing three six-month rotations in different areas of Australia’s Defence capabilities, such as over-the-horizon radar and electronic warfare. It was really broad and exciting.”

Melanie specialised in electronic warfare and earned a master’s degree in electronic warfare systems engineering as she continued to work for the DoD. “I was helping equip our future Navy with state-of-the-art electronic warfare systems.

"I worked with leading Australian and international researchers on the technology challenges associated with the field. I was leading multinational teams as the engineering lead, so I spent a lot of time in the United States of America (USA) in places like  Boston, Atlanta and Washington D.C. It was all about helping Australia and the USA develop the best capability we could for our defence forces.”

After ten rewarding years, Melanie was ready to stay on Australian soil for a while. Upon seeing an advertisement for a position as the Team Leader in Technology Development Engineering at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), Melanie was interested, but not sure how her specialised knowledge and experience in defence could apply. However, she found her abilities translated quite well.

“When I joined the AIMS team, I initially helped them integrate new technologies for protecting the Great Barrier Reef and further enabling the institute’s researchers,” Melanie says.

“I now lead ReefWorks, Australia’s tropical marine technology test range at AIMS. ReefWorks provides technology developers a safe place to test leading edge technologies such as marine autonomous systems. ReefWorks is a key enabler to establishing a maritime autonomous systems technology sector here in Townsville for generations to come.”

Despite her initial hesitation in transferring from defence to marine technology development, Melanie says the foundation she built in her studies at JCU helped her to excel in her role. “JCU really prepared me for being quite solutions-driven and adaptable. Because I had developed core problem-solving skills, I could adapt and apply them anywhere."

"Even though I had moved from the electronic warfare domain to protecting marine life and promoting oceanography, I could use the same base skill set and hit the ground running.”

JCU Engineering Alumni Melanie Olsen

AIMS ReefScan CoralAUV is a small yellow underwater drone surveying a coral reef underwater near Lizard Island.
 AIMS chief pilot Joe Gioffre and engineer Dr Jon Kok posing on a boat in front of the AIMS hyperspectral drone system.
Left: AIMS ReefScan CoralAUV being trialled near Lizard Island. Right: AIMS chief pilot Joe Gioffre and engineer Dr Jon Kok with the AIMS hyperspectral drone system. (Photos by Scott Bainbridge, courtesy of AIMS.)

Making way for the next generation

JCU and AIMS have a strong relationship through AIMS@JCU, with JCU PhD candidates and master’s students conducting marine research with AIMS. With a connection to both the University and AIMS, Melanie is working to increase the opportunities for collaboration and impact.

“We’ve realised that to have great marine science, we need great engineers supporting research. So, we’re working together with JCU Engineering to establish marine engineering collaborations with AIMS and also establishing connections to industry for students. We’re aiming to create a career pathway for JCU Engineering students into new marine technologies that we’re deploying out on the reef.”

For Melanie, this effort is not just a way for her to give back to the community and University that shaped her career’s foundation, but also a way to create greater opportunities and benefits for Townsville.

“Townsville is right on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, so marine engineering is a niche that suits this community and our industries perfectly. My vision is a strong marine autonomous systems industry here in Townsville so young women and young men can come from JCU straight into our local workforce, which builds up the capability and capacity of both JCU and our broader industry community.

“By establishing a marine technology ecosystem in Townsville, we’re building a regional capability for what the community and our industries will look like in ten years’ time. We need new graduates filling the gaps of the future and we need local career paths to ensure that these graduates have the education, training and opportunity to do so.”

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