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Eyes in the sky - weed spotting technology

Unmanned drones and satellite imagery are the latest technologies to be harnessed by researchers from Sydney University and Local Land Services in the pursuit of the ultimate weed detection device.

The researchers have been developing a new eye in the sky in the form of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or drones that can map the exact location of every single infestation of weeds such as Mimosa, Serrated Tussock, African Box Thorn and Harrisia Cactus.  

"We're using algorithms to identify the target weeds from the air, and we're also investigating the use of satellite imaging to make the process more efficient and cost effective," said Northern Tablelands Weeds Project Officer, Jonathan Lawson, who is working with Sydney University to develop this technology.

"Weeds are an enormous problem for both agriculture and the environment.  If we don't know where all the weeds are, it's a lot harder to stop their spread.  Getting precise information about exactly where each plant is will make control programs far more effective," said Jonathan.

The technology focuses on the features of each plant that are most easily identified by the machines, such as the bright reddish pink fruit of Harrisia Cactus, the distinct green colour of Mimosa, or the spiky branches and round leaves of African Boxthorn.

Trial results have demonstrated the algorithms can identify specific weeds at varying densities and also segment each individual plant in an image.

The aerial imagery detection project is also targeting Orange Hawkweed in the Kosciuszko National Park in southern NSW, a weed with the potential to devastate both farmers and native species if its spread is left unchecked.

According to the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Orange Hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum) is on the Alert List for Environmental Weeds, a list of 28 particularly invasive non-native plants that threaten biodiversity and cause other environmental damage.

"The development of aerial mapping technology could make a huge difference in our efforts to stop the spread of Orange Hawkweed, and to manage some of the worst weeds degrading the landscape on the Northern Tablelands," said Jonathan.

"This project could dramatically reduce the cost of monitoring infestations and enable the implementation of much better control strategies."

The aerial imagery detection research has been supported through the Commonwealth Government's National Landcare Program Innovative Grants funding.

Landholders will be able to see the weed mapping drones in action and hear from the researchers who've been trialling this technology on Mimosa, African Boxthorn and Harrisia Cactus, at field days coming up at Moree and Boggabilla in early October. 

For more information about the aerial imagery weed detection project and field day dates and locations, contact Jonathan Lawson at Northern Tablelands Local Land Services on:  

phone 02 6732 8800  
mobile: 0429 914207 or