Unmanned autonomous aircraft are being trialled in surveys to detect weeds in difficult rainforest terrain. This research is part of Project ResQu, established to develop the use of unmanned autonomous vehicles for search and rescue operations and weed surveillance programs.
Protecting rainforest from weeds
Our rainforests are precious – less than two per cent of Australia's land area, confined to small patches clustered mostly in inaccessible, mountainous regions along the tropical coast. It's important we look after these precious habitats. Unfortunately, a purple-leaved weed, Miconia calvescens, has invaded some areas of rainforest. Miconia is an unusually aggressive invader and has potential to cause irreversible damage to native plant and wildlife populations.
Unmanned aircraft search for weeds
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.
Developed by robotics researchers at CSIRO in partnership with Biosecurity Queensland, the unmanned helicopters locate weeds using sophisticated imaging technology. They offer a safer, more convenient way of mapping weeds in remote and difficult terrain.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) give weed spotters a safer job, allowing them to review footage at their leisure rather than take to the skies and eyeball weeds on the go from full-sized manned helicopters, which is expensive and can be dangerous. As the information is stored, it allows different departments to share data for comparison over time.
More weeds recorded than by eye
CSIRO built the prototype UAVs over two years and trialled them in difficult conditions. They performed better than expected, finding Miconia plants in the rainforest that hadn't been spotted before. They're proving a safe and convenient alternative for traditional aerial weed surveys.
The unmanned Project ResQu helicopters were deployed to survey rainforests at El Arish, near Cairns during August 2014.
They found not just Miconia but several other weed species. The robotic helicopters can navigate obstacles without human control while recording locations and images for biosecurity staff to scan for evidence of weeds.
The next step, pending extra funding, will be to fully automate weed identification and further improve UAV dependability and safety.
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