Dr Andrew Hoskins knows how good it feels when science creates benefits for communities and the environment. And when it is used to protect cultural sites.
"Utilising high tech analytical tools to solve real-world problems that have tangible impacts feels good. It gives you a lovely, warm, fuzzy feeling," Andrew said.
“I’m interested in biosecurity and biodiversity and how these intersect with human livelihoods especially Indigenous people’s livelihoods."
Dr Andrew Hoskins is a quantitative ecologist. He is currently leading a collaborative satellite herd-tracking program. Dubbed SpaceCows, this program is a body of research with multiple partners.
Many different techniques are used to track and manage feral cows and buffalo in northern Australia. These techniques include Artificial intelligence (AI), satellites, and also on the ground know-how.
We've identified three remote properties to run our SpaceCows program. One property is in Arnhem Land and two are in Cape York. We'll be working on the ground with rangers and Traditional Owners from these regions. This will help us understand how feral animal management can enhance local values and needs.
Unmanaged feral cattle and buffaloes are environmental vandals. For example, they are responsible for land degradation, overgrazing of native vegetation, erosion and destruction to rivers and wetlands.
But it's not just environmental damage that's the problem. Animals damage cultural sites by, for example, rubbing up against rocks destroying important rock art. Consequently, this erodes images that have been there for hundreds of years.
"While managing feral animals protects environmental and cultural values, the added benefit of creating economic opportunities for indigenous people is icing on the cake," Andrew said.
“Part of the SpaceCows program will provide training to rangers in ethical animal handling and mustering, as well as using the technology to find the animals on their land. Not only does this get people from remote communities more involved on Country, it creates employment opportunities for indigenous people.
“Tools will be developed to inform land managers why, how, and if mustering animals for sale into traditional meat markets will be successful."
Space age innovation
The biggest challenge with sending feral cattle to market is locating them across vast and inaccessible terrain. Because of this, the cost of moving animals can cut into the profit. And sometimes make the process completely unviable.
Our scientists are using technology that will tell us if the animals are too difficult to get to. It will also tell us if other management options will need to be discussed.
The cattle will be tagged with lightweight ear tags. Microsoft's technologies will harness data from tagged animals through Kinéis’ 25 nano-satellite IoT constellation, at 650km of altitude. Following on, this will display the landscape and forecast the movement of feral herds.
The rangers will use AI to help plan the best routes to reach and manage the animals. The rangers will use quad bikes, bull catchers or helicopters, factoring in issues such as terrain and other on-ground conditions. All the while, rangers will be able to read the data on dashboards from their vehicles so they can make decisions in real-time.
"We're hopeful that our research will give Indigenous rangers and land-owners the best data to make informed choices as to how, where and when to manage feral cattle on their land," Andrew said.
"Our aim with this research is to develop the world’s largest satellite-enabled herd tracking program and such a system could help manage other feral animals like donkeys, goats and pigs in the future," Andrew said.
"I never expected I'd be tagging feral cattle and buffalo in remote Northern Australia and monitoring them from space while I was studying fur seals in Bass Strait.
But here I am involved in a project that protects the environment and important cultural values while creating economic opportunities for Indigenous land-owners. For me, my job ticks all the boxes,” he said.
A collaborative initiative, SpaceCows is a partnership between us, the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), satellite IoT company Kinéis, James Cook University, Mimal Land Management Aboriginal Corporation, Aak Puul Ngangtam, Normanby Land Management, Charles Darwin University and Microsoft.
This project is supported by the Smart Farming Partnership initiative, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.