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A pioneer in Australian robotics research




9-1-1941 - 3-10-2013

"He cut the tether, how he was not sure, and floated off aimlessly, bidding his emaciated body goodbye along with all those who loved him standing solemnly around, not yet aware of its emptiness."

So ends one of Ray Jarvis' short stories, written a few months before he himself died of mesothelioma.

In that story, the character mourns his imminent passing: "The cruel separation from all those he loved and all the activities it was his life's pleasure to engage in."

For Ray, those pleasures were his work, his family, art, literature, theatre, films, jazz and the beach.

In his work he always claimed to have been the most fortunate of men to be paid to do what he loved. However, it was not luck but single-mindedness that helped him realise his dreams and resulted in

Australia having a "viable robotic community".

Born in Burma in 1941, he came to Western Australia with his parents and elder brother Michael. After moving around a bit, the family settled in Maylands, a suburb of Perth. As Ray's father was a semi-invalid, the family struggled financially, and from an early age Ray showed his independence and determination to get what he wanted without imposing on others. Ice-creams were a luxury at threepence each, so while in primary school Ray ran a raffle selling six tickets at a penny each. This enabled him to buy two ice-creams - one for the winner and one for himself.

Although Ray had been willing to contribute to the family finances by leaving school in year 9 and working on the railways, his mother wanted a better career for her boys, so both completed university. Ray graduated with a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of WA. It was during this time he took a student vacation job at Wittenoom, where he earned a good wage but also, unbeknown to him, ingested the fibres that proved fatal 50 years later.

After obtaining his PhD, Ray worked for two years as a visiting professor at Purdue University in Indiana, in the US. Though he was offered a tempting research position there, he refused it as he wanted his children to grow up in Australia.

In 1970, he joined the Australian National University in Canberra, where he helped establish the Department of Computer Science. There, according to Professor James Trevelyan, he was the first Australian researcher to bring robots on to a university campus in the computer science department and "he developed methods for mobile robot navigation and colour image perception and segmentation that have become fundamental building blocks for robots in use today".

In 1985, Ray was appointed to a chair in the department of electrical and computer systems engineering at Monash University in Clayton, where in 1987 he established the Intelligent Robotics Research Centre.

Chris Cook from the University of Wollongong describes Ray's lab as "full of a vast array of vehicles of every description - truly a boys' own dream of the ultimate playground heaven". These machines were then worked on to enhance their autonomy, and due to Ray's engineering background, most of the modifications were successful.

He published more than 300 research papers in his fields of interest, covering intelligent robotics, computer vision, computational geometry automata theory and advanced computer architectures.

However, Ray was more than a pioneering researcher. He was also a strong advocate for the education and mentoring of students, and used his involvement in the Australian Robotics and Automation Association, of which he was a co-founder, to help guide many undergraduates, masters and PhD students to become world-class researchers by encouraging them to present papers at the annual conferences.

As well as researching and monitoring students, Ray also served on the Australian Research Council's grant committee - a duty he took very seriously.

In 2011, he became a life fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and his work was also recognised, albeit posthumously, by the first lifetime achievement award from the ARAA. The association also honoured Ray by instituting the Raymond A. Jarvis Best Prize Award to be presented perpetually at the Australian Conference on Robotics and Automation. He would have been most gratified by this.

He retired reluctantly, as he felt he had so much more to contribute and do, but having retired, he then made the decision to develop his artistic side. In his last two years he spent the weekends at Mt Martha painting in a studio that he had constructed. During the week he threw himself into writing short stories. His daughter Julia had 60 of them, printed and bound under the title Two Moons; the title story, written shortly after his diagnosis, is a metaphor for his impending struggle.

Throughout his life, despite his love of the laboratory and his inclination to work late, he also valued family time and was always home for the evening meal and the weekends. He enjoyed puns, corny jokes, and enhanced many family occasions with quirky gadgetry. For example, one Christmas he ushered everyone into the garage, where he had built not one but two zoetropes for their delight.

His family - his brother, wife, four children and seven grandchildren - will miss him sorely but are proud of his achievements, which Dr Alex Zelinski, a one-time colleague and now chief defence scientist and head of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, summarised recently when he thanked him "for his pioneering contribution to robotics, for his leadership in education and for his inspiring legacy".

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