Drone helicopters versus ‘purple plague’: CSIRO takes on invasive biosecurity threat

Drone helicopters versus ‘purple plague’: CSIRO takes on invasive biosecurity threat


It is the invasive purple plague threatening to take over our land.

Scientists are desperate to stop it before it completely gets out of control and have unveiled their latest robotic weapon in this massive biosecurity battle.

The robot which is capable of flying unmanned and going places most helicopters and planes can’t, could be just the weapon experts need in their ongoing war.

Developed by robotics researchers at CSIRO, in partnership with Biosecurity Queensland, Project ResQu helicopters are being used to fight the super invasive weed and biological threat, Miconia calvescens which scientists have dubbed the purple plague.

The plant, which is native to South American rainforests, may look pretty enough but biosecurity experts say it threatens to take over out sensitive environment.

Capable of spreading fast and causing irreversible damage to native forest, land and even wildlife, scientists say these autonomous drone-like helicopters are the key to stopping the purple plague in its tracks by mapping where it is and how far it has spread.

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

Scientists also faced an uphill battle trying to map the weed infestation, which often took over areas which were inaccessible to humans.

“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 using the sophisticated imaging technology.

Not only are the helicopters safer for mapping land, but they are also capable of navigating obstacles without human control while recording locations and images.

Leading robotics engieneer Dr Torsten Merz, who developed the brains behind the robots, told news.com.au the technology had massive potential in not only tackling biosecurity threats such the purple plague, but could help farmers, be used to track down missing bushwalkers and even spot bushfires.

Dr Merz said the technology also allowed experts to review footage from the ground rather than taking to the skies in a piloted aircraft, which could be expensive and time-consuming.

He said the robots were perfect for tackling threats such as the purple plague as the tree grew under the rainforest canopy and was often difficult to spot from the air.

“These helicopters are automated which means they don’t need a pilot and its data can be analysed from the ground,” he said.

“It’s far easier than sending a helicopter up, with a spotter hanging out, which may not even be able to access the area.”

He said the robots also had another advantage in that they were easily transportable in a car and was also built to be fail-proof in that it would fly back to base if it detected a problem in one if systems.

“It’s very futuristic and while it uses GPS like other aircraft it’s actually designed to fly around objects by itself,” he said.

“It’s very intelligent.

“Our message is we can do incredible things with these machines and this (tackling weed plagues) is just one example of that.”


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