Main Image: The team of scientists behind the RapidAIM pest monitoring system: Dr Nancy Schellhorn, Laura Jones, and Darren Moore.
RapidAIM is a real-time pest monitoring system which detects the presence and location of insect pests, cutting down the need for manual monitoring. The data service start-up was founded by agro-ecologist and entomologist Dr Nancy Schellhorn, electronics engineer Darren Moore and research technician Laura Jones within CSIRO. The research scientists have brought together their diverse skill sets across pest management, environmental monitoring and prototype development to develop a next-generation pest monitoring system.
Monitoring for fruit flies and other insect pests is presently done manually. Globally, millions of traps are monitored in crop production every 7-14 days. Manual monitoring is expensive and time-consuming, but essential for managing pest outbreaks. Fruit flies are a particularly costly biosecurity hazard, and are responsible for the yearly loss of US$30 billion of fruit and vegetable production.
Dr Schellhorn and the RapidAIM co-founders spoke to government biosecurity officers, growers and crop advisors to pinpoint the exact information the sector needed to improve pest monitoring strategies. “These insects are small, reproduce quickly and are highly mobile between habitats, so understanding their location and when they show up is pretty critical to delivering sustainable pest control,” explains Dr Schellhorn.
RapidAIM have developed the hardware and software for a grid of smart insect traps which detect the presence of insects and send the data to the cloud for analytics. An alert is then generated for end users through the mobile-linked app. “We use a novel, low-power sensor that provides a behavioural fingerprint of the insects, with real-time information about pest locations,” says Dr Schellhorn. The result is a map of thousands of traps providing accurate surveillance of insects. This helps crop growers respond rapidly in the occurrence of pest outbreaks.
RapidAIM is currently trialling a Beta version of the smart traps in five locations across Australia, working with some of the biggest fruit growers and state agencies, commercial partners and horticultural providers. The trials will compare the automated traps to the currently used manual traps in locations in SA, WA, NSW, VIC and Tasmania.
“We want to work closely with our potential customers so that we deliver a product of value’, says Dr Schellhorn.
The co-founding scientists are enjoying the challenge of bringing their vision to market. “We’re committed to making an impact with our science,” says Dr Schellhorn. “We believe that being involved in the full value chain of understanding the problem and the technology development is critical.”
Dr Schellhorn believes that “talking to potential customers was key in our current technology. The process has been a challenge, but it’s been great learning.”
Agtech startup FluroSat, headed by aeronautical engineer Anastasia Volkova, had its origins through the University of Sydney’s Inventing the Future entrepreneurial program. Since its inception two years ago, it has already captured the attention of investors and is now about to launch its new online platform to the Australian market.
Volkova sums up one of the problems the agricultural industry is currently facing in a nutshell: “Farms are large and farmers are busy. The opportunity for different applications of remote sensing technology [to be converted] into crop stress indicators has found resonance in the farming and agricultural community. We’re turning this data into insights.”
Flurosat uses remote sensing images (captured by multi-/ and hyperspectral cameras on board satellites, airplanes and drones) to capture early indicators of crop stress. The team have developed a subscription-based platform (FluroSense™) to infuse this data into a smart solution for precision farming. Agronomists can use the platform to spot crop stress indicators and verify the exact locations at risk. They can then consult with farmers on how to best target the areas which need attention.
Unlimited satellite data is available on the platform, additional aircraft-obtained data can be ordered and users can even upload their own drone data. Volkova explains the critical requirements for data connectivity, from locational identification of the crop stressors through to quantification, analysis and interpretation. “We’re making the remote sensing work for precision agriculture and [extracting] insights from crop stress indicators that crop stress models help us look for. It’s a two-step approach that very few other [agtech] companies are using.”
The agtech startup has three main pillars: agriculture, remote sensing and data science/machine learning. The diverse and international team bring together their expertise in agtech, aerospace, software development and data analytics and are based at FluroSat’s head offices in Sydney and Kiev. “Flurosat was born out of a desire to make an impact”, says Volkova. She explains that she examined the unique value proposition of her skills and how she could apply them to a global problem. “It’s important to have a purpose to wake up every morning to.”
Volkova speaks proudly about the startup and her colleagues: “It’s harnessing people’s superpowers and skills for a great purpose.” She says that one of their biggest successes so far has been convincing clients of the usefulness of the data and that it’s possible to get the full benefits to visit the field in person. “We’ve proven that you don’t need a person on the ground to provide customer service.”
FluroSat is gearing up to conduct the company’s third season of monitoring of primarily cotton crop in Australia this summer and expand its reach globally, particularly to the North and South American markets. “We’re looking at driving the value of the insights on the large scale.”
Disruption can mean a lot of things. Dictionary definitions include “a forcible separation” or division into parts. More recently it has come to mean a radical change in industry or business. This brings to mind huge technological innovations. But what if it’s as simple as realising that a handheld device for detecting nitrogen could also be used to gauge how much feed there is in a paddock; that drones can be adapted to measure pest infestations; that communities can proactively track the movement of feral animals.
These are just some of the projects that Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are working on that have the capacity to change crop and livestock outcomes in Australia, improve our environment and advance our financial systems.
Data and environment
Mapping pest threats
Invasive animals have long been an issue in Australia. But a program developed by the Invasive Animals CRC called FeralScan is taking advantage of the widespread use of smartphones to combat this problem.
The program involves an app that enables landholders to share information about pest animals and the impacts they cause to improve local management programs.
Peter West, FeralScan project coordinator at the NSW Department of Primary Industries, says the team wouldn’t have thought of a photo-sharing app without genuine community consultation.
The project has been running for six years and can record sightings, impacts and control activities for a wide range of pest species in Australia, including rabbits, foxes, feral cats, cane toads and myna birds. West says that it now has 70,000 records and photographs, and more than 14,000 registered users across the country.
“For regional management of high-impacting pest species, such as wild dogs, what we’re providing is a tool that can help farmers and biosecurity stakeholders detect and respond quickly to pest animal threats,” says West.
“It enables them to either reprioritise where they are going to do control work or to sit down and work with other regional partners: catchment groups, local biosecurity authorities and the broader community.”
The app won the Environment and Energy Minister’s award for a Cleaner Environment in the field of Research and Science excellence at the Banksia Foundation 2016 Awards in December. Recent improvements to the app include the ability to monitor rabbit bio-control agents.Plans for the future include upgrading the technology to alert farmers to nearby pest threats, says West.
Also in the information space, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC (BNHCRC) is investigating reasons we don’t pay attention to or ignore messages that notify us of an impending fire or floods. Researchers are using theories of marketing, crisis communications and advertising to create messaging most likely to assist people to get out of harm’s way.
“The way we personally assess risk has a big impact on how we interpret messages. If I have a higher risk tolerance I will probably underestimate risk,” says Vivienne Tippett, BNHCRC project lead researcher and professor at Queensland University of Technology. “We’ve worked with many emergency services agencies to assist them to reconstruct their messages.”
Instead of an emergency message with a brief heading, followed by the agency name and then a quite technical paragraph about weather conditions and geography, Tippett’s team has worked on moving the key message up to the top and translating it into layperson terms. For example, a message might now say something like: “This is a fast-moving, unpredictable fire in the face of strong winds.”
Tippett’s team is constantly working with emergency services to make sure their findings are made use of as quickly as possible. “The feedback from the community is that yes, they understand it better and they would be more likely to comply” she says.
The Plant Biosecurity CRC is using unmanned aerial systems (UAS or drones) to improve ways to detect pest infestations in vast crops. Project leader Brian McCornack is based at the Kansas State University in the US.
“The driver for using unmanned aerial systems has been in response to a need to improve efficiency [reduce costs and increase time] for surveillance activities over large areas, given limited resources,” says McCornack. “The major game-changer is the affordability of existing UAS technology and sophisticated sensors.”
The project is now in its third year and adds an extra layer of data to the current, more traditional system, which relies on a crop consultant making a visual assessment based on a small sample area of land, often from a reduced vantage point.
The international collaboration between the US and the Australian partners at QUT, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the NSW Department of Primary Industries means the project has access to a wide range of data on species of biosecurity importance.
The CRC for Spatial Information (CRCSI) has also been working on repurposing an existing gadget, in this case to improve the accuracy of estimating pasture biomass. Currently, graziers use techniques such as taking height measurements or eyeballing to determine how much feed is available to livestock in a paddock. However, such techniques can result in huge variability in estimates of pasture biomass, and often underestimate the feed-on-offer.
Professor David Lamb, leader of the Biomass Business project, says graziers underestimate green pasture biomass by around 50%. There could be a huge potential to improve farm productivity by getting these measures right.
Through case studies conducted on commercial farms in Victoria, Meat and Livestock Australia found that improving feed allocation could increase productivity by 11.1%, or up to $96 per hectare on average, for sheep enterprises, and 9.6% ($52 per hectare) for cattle enterprises.
The CRCSI and Meat and Livestock Australia looked at a number of devices that measure NDVI (the normalised difference vegetation index), like the Trimble Green Seeker® and the Holland Crop Circle®. The data collected by these devices can then be entered into the CRCSI app to provide calibrated estimates of green pasture biomass.
Graziers can also create their own calibrations as they come to understand how accurate, or inaccurate, their own estimates have been. These crowd-sourced calibrations can be shared with other graziers to increase the regional coverage of calibrations for a range of pasture types throughout the year.
In July 2016, the federal government announced funding for a partner project “Accelerating precision agriculture to decision agriculture”. The Data to Decisions Cooperative Research Centre (D2D CRC) has partnered with all 15 rural research and development corporations (RDCs) on the project.
“The goal of the project is to help producers use big data to make informed on-farm decisions to drive profitability,” says D2D CRC lead Andrew Skinner.
He says that while the project may not provide concrete answers to specific data-related questions, it will provide discussion projects for many issues and concerns that cross different rural industries, such as yield optimisation and input efficiencies.
Collaboration between the 15 RDCs is a first in Australia and has the potential to reveal information that could shape a gamut of agricultural industries. “Having all the RDCs come together in this way is unique,” says Skinner.
The Capital Markets CRC, in conjunction with industry, has developed a system that allows it to issue and circulate many digital currencies, securely and with very fast processing times – and because it is a first mover in this space, has the potential to be a global disruptor.
Digi.cash is a spinoff of the Capital Markets CRC and is specifically designed for centrally issued money, like national currencies.
“Essentially we have built the printing press for electronic coins and banknotes, directly suited to issuing national currencies in digital form, as individual electronic coins and banknotes that can be held and passed on to others,” says digi.cash founder Andreas Furche.
A currency in digi.cash’s system is more than a balance entry in an accounts database, it is an actual encrypted note or coin. The act of transfer of an electronic note itself becomes the settlement. This is in contrast to legacy systems, where transaction ledgers are created that require settlement in accounts. So there is no settlement or clearing period.
“We have a advantage globally because we were on the topic relatively early and we have a group of people who have built a lot of banking and stock exchange technologies in the past, so we were able to develop a product which held up to the IT securities standards used in banking right away,” says Furche.
Digi.cash is currently operating with a limit of total funds on issue of $10 million. It is looking to partner with industry players and be in a leading position in the development of the next generation financial system, which CMCRC says will be based on digitised assets.
Passive radar, as developed by the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST), has been around for some time, but is being refined and re-engineered in an environment where radiofrequency energy is much more common.
As recognition of the disruptive capabilities of this technology, the Passive Radar team at DST was recently accepted into the CSIRO’s innovation accelerator program, ON Accelerate.
Active radar works by sending out a very large blast of energy and listening for reflections of that energy, but at the same time it quickly notifies anyone nearby of the transmitter’s whereabouts.
“Passive radar is the same thing, but we don’t transmit any energy – we take advantage of the energy that is already there,” explains passive radar team member James Palmer.
The technology is being positioned as a complement for active radar. It can be used where there are more stringent regulations around radar spectrum – such as the centre of a city as opposed to an isolated rural area. Radio spectrum is also a finite resource and there is now so much commercial demand that the allocation for Defence is diminishing.
Although the idea of passive radar is not a new one – one of the first radar presentations in the 1930s was a passive radar demonstration – the increase in radiofrequency energy from a variety of sources these days means it is more efficient. For example, signals from digital TV are much more suited to passive radar than analogue TV.
“We are at the point where we are seeing some really positive results and we’ve been developing commercial potential for this technology,” Palmer says. “For a potentially risky job like a radar operator the ability to see what’s around you [without revealing your position], that’s very game changing.”
There is also no need to apply for an expensive spectrum licence. The Australian team is also the first in the world to demonstrate that it can use Pay TV satellites as a viable form of background radiofrequency energy. The company name Silentium Defence Pty Ltd has been registered for the commercial use of the technology.