Drones enlisted to fight war on skeleton weed

Ann Rawlings and Cally DupeCountryman
DPIRD biosecurity officers Kelly Manning and Kodie Fulker and South Kunnonoppin farmer Rohan Day in front of a skeleton weed.
Camera IconDPIRD biosecurity officers Kelly Manning and Kodie Fulker and South Kunnonoppin farmer Rohan Day in front of a skeleton weed. Credit: Cally Dupe

A two-decade war with a notorious perennial weed is still waging at Rohan Day’s farm but he may soon be able to rally some aerial troops to help.

The South Burracoppin farmer first noticed the declared plant skeleton within a pasture paddock in the late 1990s.

Moving quickly to quarantine the area and treat the weed, which can reduce crop yields by competing for moisture and nutrients, Mr Day then reported his find to the relevant authorities, as any good farmer should do.

First working alongside those in the realms of the Department of Agriculture and Food WA, now the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, his role in fighting the weed has evolved, with Mr Day now chairman of the Grains, Seeds and Hay Industry Funding Scheme.

“Some paddocks we have eradicated (skeleton weed), and in others we haven’t yet, but the plan is to get the numbers down to a manageable level,” Mr Day said.

“What would be great is if we could eradicate it from our property.”

Mr Day said the eradication program supported by industry worked but early detection was important for ease of management — and that was where drones might help to win the war.

“The earlier you get the weed, the easier it is to kill. If you don’t get to it for two to three years, it can establish a huge tap root and it will be difficult to get rid of,” he said.

Mr Day said the Skeleton Weed Program, funded via the Grains, Seeds and Hay IFS, had been using new remote sensing data collection technology to complement traditional surveillance methods.

“There were two key areas of the project, to test the abilities of various drones and camera technologies, and to promote the development of machine learning software to identify and map skeleton weed from images captured by drones,” he said.

Software developer Precise AI has also applied its weed mapping and detection platform Optiweed to the project.

“This platform has progressed from detecting clumps of skeleton weed to being able to detect individual skeleton weed plants and their precise GPS location within the paddock,” Mr Day said.

Skeleton Weed Program manager Martin Atwell, of the DPIRD, said the surveillance activity aimed to cover up to 40,000 hectares of farmland a year.

The surveillance activity is a vital part of the overall program.

“Drone technology was used in the 2018/19 search season to undertake targeted surveillance of uninfested areas where skeleton weed plants were most likely to spread,” Mr Atwell said.

Previously, all surveillance was undertaken by farmers and program staff in vehicles.

While this has worked well, there are some potential advantages in using drones.

“The work is currently delivering a good skeleton weed detection rate at a similar cost to the current methods of surveillance,” Mr Atwell said.

The technology has the potential to improve the cost-effectiveness of skeleton weed surveillance.

“This means reduced costs to the industry for funding for the program,” Mr Day said. “It also minimises the impact of vehicle traffic on farmland.”

More information on the program is available from the department website agric.wa.gov.au/skeletonweed

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