When the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CfAT) was established in 1980, it set out to help Indigenous people living in regional and remote Australia solve technical problems so they could maintain their relationship with the country.
Based in Alice Springs, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander not-for-profit organisation — which has an Aboriginal workforce of more than 50% — services remote communities around central Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland.
“For us, it was important to have the Aboriginal status front and centre in running the organisation, and overseeing the rollout of our programs,” Peter Renehan, an Arrernte man and CfAT CEO, told ZDNet.
“To do that, we link to people on the ground who live in those very remote areas and understand what those needs are. That provides us with an understanding of how to better come up with solutions based around technologies.”
Over the years, the CfAT, together with its wholly-owned subsidiary Ekistica, has worked with Indigenous communities on a range of projects, from improving water accessibility and providing reliable energy, to housing infrastructure, training and skills development, as well as developing a mobile hotspot to provide what Reneham described as a “passive no-electricity boosting system” to improve mobile coverage in remote parts of Australia.
However, these projects came to a grounding halt when the federal government cut funding to the organisation in 2015, leaving it high and dry.
“In the end, all of that stopped. We really had to change our business model and think about how we could be more sustainable and more efficient in our processes, and how to operate as a business, rather than as an NGO. That was a big change and transition for our board,” Renehan said.
Despite the setback, Renehan said the CfAT was optimistic about the prospect of new business opportunities. It wasn’t long after when US satellite company Viasat and the Indigenous Business Alliance (IBA) both came knocking on the organisation’s door to help with the development and construction of a pair of commercial satellite ground stations in Alice Springs, the first of its kind on Aboriginal-owned land.
Renehan said being part of the project not only helped put central Australia on the map, but also Aboriginal people too.
“For us, it’s not just a rental or leasing of our land, it provides us the opportunity to do the ground maintenance on the site … for us, there’s a broad spectrum of benefits for Aboriginal people through these projects,” he said.
“This opportunity shows Aboriginal can be front and centre — we’re not just passive end users. It’s an industry that can help grow the Northern Territory. We’re uniquely located in Alice Springs, we get 250 days of sunshine, we’ve got all the infrastructure underground to support it, and the land asset as well to continue to grow.
“It’s new to us as we’re not used to dealing with major multinational companies from around the world, but it puts us at the table when these discussions are happening.”
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The satellite systems will be used to track low-earth orbit satellites, provide real-time earth observation, and improve disaster management such as dealing with cyclones and bushfires, as well as aid border protection, search and rescue operations, and environmental monitoring.
Renehan is hopeful the Viasat satellites can also be used to support local Indigenous ranger programs, particularly around bushfire management and carbon farming,
“With the application of the Viasat ground station placed here with an Aboriginal organisation on Aboriginal land, we’re hoping … to come up with better technology solutions that will make their jobs easier,” Renehan said.
Renehan explained the way these satellites will be used will not be too dissimilar to the Aboriginal way of life.
“If I look at Aboriginal art, if I look at the way Aboriginal people manage their land, it’s generally about tracking land or telling a story about the land they belong to,” he said.
“Similarly, the work on a satellite being done from above looking down on the ground, providing information around monitoring and land management, it’s quite easy for Aboriginal people to understand that because a lot of that technology is made up in the DNA of Aboriginal people.”
But the Viasat deal is not the only one that CfAT has managed to score. It’s also working with European aerospace company ArianeGroup to build a new geotracker station featuring an optical telescope that will be able to automatically track satellites.
“Once we developed the relationship with Viasat on our side, ArianeGroup were quite willing to develop a relationship with us,” Renehan said.
Looking ahead, Renehan said the CfAT is confident that it will remain a key link between Indigenous Australians, particularly the younger generation, and new technology through collaborative projects.
“I think there’s a romantic view across Australia that don’t understand Aboriginal people or the context, or the issues that are affecting them, and believe that they’re still living in systems that are very old, dated, and aged, when really Aboriginal people move very quickly with technology, and they find ways to use those technologies to their advantage,” he said.
“So, I think there’s a real opportunity for organisations like CfAT to help those Aboriginal communities link in with those technologies, no matter what those technologies are.
“I think Australia needs to be mature enough to understand that there are linkages into those remote Aboriginal community that can enhance the Australian experience. We need to come up with solutions that can enhance those Aboriginal people and the culture they bring to the Australian context. Hopefully, over the years they become key players in the economic development in Australia, rather passive end-users.”