Australia’s rare and precious rainforests, like the iconic Daintree, could have an unexpected aerial ally in the battle against weeds – autonomous helicopters.

Music plays and text appears: Robots to ResQu our rainforests]

[Image changes to show various pictures of a rainforest]

[Image changes to show Doctor Gary Fitt – Science Director, Biosecurity Flagship, CSIRO]

Dr. Gary Fitt: Miconia is an invasive tree, and it’s one of the world’s top 100 invasive plants, so it’s something to be really concerned about.

[Image changes to show various pictures of Miconia trees]

It’s a plant that’s invaded rainforests in many other countries. You look at Tahiti, 25% of their rainforest is now Miconia.

[Image changes back to Doctor Gary Fitt]

Something we don’t want in Australia.

[Image changes to show a helicopter on the ground]

[Image changes to show men in a rainforest]

[Image changes to aerial pictures of a rainforest from a helicopter]

[Image changes to show Mick Jeffery – Project Coordinator (Tropical Weed Eradication), Biosecurity Queensland]

Mick Jeffery: Most of the work we do is on ground. We’ve got teams that bash through the rainforest, searching.

[Image changes to show various pictures of people searching through the rainforest]

But we don’t see everything from the ground; we also need to detect things from the air.

[Image changes to show a helicopter on the ground]

[Image changes to show a group of people sitting in a helicopter]

But flying in a helicopter with our staff and spotters in there, it can be dangerous, they’re relatively close.

[Image changes to an aerial shot of a rainforest from a helicopter]

[Image changes back to Mick Jeffery]

In the long term we would hope to take that human risk element out of aerial operations.

[Image changes to show a rainforest covered in fog]

[Image changes to show a rainforest]

[Image changes to show remote controlled helicopters being operated by a group of people in the field]

[Image changes back to Doctor Gary Fitt]

Dr. Gary Fitt: The real challenge with an invasive plant like Miconia that’s invading a very difficult environment, a difficult terrain, is to be able to find those plants early enough to make a difference.

[Image changes to show various pictures of Miconia trees]

[Image changes to show people setting up remote controlled helicopters in the field]

So it’s really a needle in a haystack problem, and you need to be able to get smart technology to the right places, and that’s where the autonomous platforms that we’re developing at CSIRO really play a big role.

[Image changes to show a group of people working at a computer]

[Image changes to show Rowland Marshall – Project Manager, Queensland University of Technology]

Rowland Marshall: Project ResQu is a $7 million two year project that aims to fast track the utilisation of unmanned aircraft in the civilian environment.

[Image changes to show the camera on the autonomous helicopter being operated]

[Image changes to show an autonomous helicopter taking off]

What we’ve done today is demonstrated utilisation of an unmanned aircraft in the detection of Miconia weed.

[Image changes to show an autonomous helicopter hovering above the ground]

We are performing this research project with CSIRO, Queensland University of Technology, Boeing, Insitu Pacific, and the Queensland State Government.

[Image changes to show a man working at a computer]

[Image changes back to Rowland Marshall]

In order to complete the work we’ve also been liaising with Biosecurity Queensland.

[Image changes to show an autonomous helicopter landing on the ground]

[Image changes to show Doctor Torsten Merz – Project Leader, Project ResQu – Miconia Helicopter, CSIRO]

Dr. Torsten Merz: This is the Miconia helicopter prototype system. Yeah, we just completed the last of our demonstration flights.

[Image changes to show Doctor Torsten Merz demonstrating the camera operation on the remote controlled helicopter]

So during the cruise flight it will sweep like that and it takes five images per second.

[Image changes to show Doctor Torsten Merz pointing to an area behind him]

We flew up into this area over there, where last week they found Miconia during a manned helicopter survey.

[Image changes to show an aerial view from the autonomous helicopter]

Tricky part with these missions is we fly relatively far away from our takeoff location, so the helicopter is not a very big aircraft, so once it goes beyond a certain distance it’s just a little dot in the sky.

[Image changes to show the autonomous helicopter flying in the air]

And on top of that we fly at low altitude, very close to the rainforest canopy.

[Image changes to show a man viewing the flight path of the autonomous helicopter on a computer]

[Image changes to show Doctor Torsten Merz and another man working on the autonomous helicopter]

The radar is used for detecting terrain obstacles which are not in our maps.

[Image changes to show an aerial view from the autonomous helicopter]

You need a good situational awareness to conduct these flights safely without human interaction.

[Image changes to show a group of people working at a computer]

[Image changes to show various computer images of rainforest]

A manned helicopter survey was done in the same area where we conducted our unmanned helicopter survey, so we had a quick analysis of the images we took during the surveys and we spotted some Miconia during that analysis which hasn’t been spotted during the manned survey.

[Image changes to show a man pointing to a Miconia plant on a computer image]

[Image changes back to Doctor Torsten Merz]

This is a great outcome.

[Image changes to show an autonomous helicopter hovering above the ground]

[Image changes to show two men working at a computer]

Dr. Gary Fitt: I guess in the biosecurity space effective surveillance is a key, we need to be able to detect incursions quickly and accurately, and when they’re present at very low densities.

[Image changes to show men working in the field]

[Image changes to show an aerial view from the autonomous helicopter]

[Image changes to show computer image of a rainforest]

[Image changes to show an autonomous helicopter hovering above the ground]

And so we need to have technologies like the autonomous helicopter, or other autonomous platforms, that can work 24/7 detecting incursions.

[Image changes to show an autonomous helicopter landing on the ground]

[Image changes back to Rowland Marshall]

Rowland Marshall: Moving forward from the project we’d really like to see the Miconia system be accepted by a commercial partner and move on to full development and deployment.

[Image changes to show an autonomous helicopter on the ground]

Project ResQu’s been a really successful project and I think it’s been able to show the viability of unmanned aircraft.

[Image changes back to Rowland Marshall]

We’re really excited about the future and being able to see them benefit people more and more.

[Image changes to show a man working at a computer]

[Image changes to show a computer image of a topographic map]

[Image changes to show a computer image of a rainforest]

[Image changes back to Doctor Gary Fitt]

Dr. Gary Fitt: As we become more and more threatened by invasive species we have to use the best technology we find, and autonomous systems from our point of view, fitted with appropriate sensors, is really the way to go.

[Image changes to show an autonomous helicopter taking off]

[Image changes to show various logos and text appears: Project ResQu is conducted with the support of our sponsors CSIRO, QUT, Queensland Government, Boeing, Insitu Pacific, ResQu

[Music plays and CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here www.csiro.au]

Robots to ResQu our rainforests

Additional Resources

Two Project ResQu helicopters developed by CSIRO completed trial flights near Cairns, locating weeds like the dreaded ‘purple plague’, or Miconia calvescens, faster and more reliably than ever.

Developed by robotics researchers at CSIRO, in partnership with Biosecurity Queensland, the unmanned helicopters found weeds using sophisticated imaging technology. The helicopters are safer and a more convenient way of mapping weeds in remote and difficult terrain.

CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship Science Director, Dr Gary Fitt, said access to dense rainforests was difficult for people but all-too-easy for weeds which get carried in by animals or blown in from gardens or farms.

“Miconia is among the worst of a number of weeds that pose a significant threat to Australia’s precious rainforest remnants,” Dr Fitt said.

“Unless detected and eradicated early, they can cause irreversible damage to our native plant and animal populations.

“In the biosecurity space effective surveillance is critical – we need to be able to detect incursions quickly and accurately. Technologies like the autonomous helicopter or other autonomous platforms provide us with another tool in the fight against these biological invasions.”

The unmanned Project ResQu helicopters surveyed rainforests at El Arish, near Cairns and found not only found Miconia but several other weed species. The helicopters can navigate obstacles without human control while recording locations and images for biosecurity staff to scan for evidence of weeds.

According to robotics researcher Dr Torsten Merz the helicopters are small enough to fit in the back of a van, are easy to use and operate under controlled conditions with failsafe mechanisms built-in.

“We built the prototypes over two years and trialled them in difficult conditions,” Dr Merz said.

“They performed better than expected, finding Miconia plants in dense rainforest that hadn’t been spotted before. Once the invasive plant is identified, they are removed from the rainforest.”

Queensland Science Minister Ian Walker said the robotic helicopter played a key role in protecting native flora from weeds and was a good example of using new technology to provide better outcomes.

“They allow the team to review footage when they need to rather than take to the skies and eyeball weeds on the go from full-sized manned helicopters, which can also be expensive and time consuming,” Minister Walker said.

“This not only saves money but also means we can boost our biosecurity by carrying out more effective mapping.”

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  • The development of potentially lifesaving unmanned aircraft capable of flying in conditions considered too dangerous for manned aircraft, is being fast-tracked under the joint research venture Project ResQu. (8:24)

Additional information

Project ResQu is a two-year, $7M project led by the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA) in a collaborative project between the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), CSIRO, Boeing and Insitu Pacific with the support of the Queensland State Government Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts.

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