NSW Environment Office applies drone AI to buzz endangered plants

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NSW Environment Office applies drone AI to buzz endangered plants

Remote surveys go FIFO.

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) has harnessed drone footage coupled with artificially-intelligent video analytics to conduct crucial vegetation surveys of remote areas that would otherwise be “prohibitively expensive”.

In a move that reflects the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles by government agencies, councils utilities and surveyors to glean data and imagery of assets more accurately affordably, OEH is using the technology to identify endangered and invasive plant species. 

An OEH spokesperson told iTnews that “scanning and surveying large areas of bushland in the hope of spotting a threatened species usually involves field trips or the chartering of a helicopter to access the area and capture images,” which is both costly and time intensive.

However a recent pilot program in partnership with Fujitsu’s Digital Owl project has already yielded success by identifying two endangered plant species in the state’s Upper Hunter region.

Drones were used to fly over and scan a mountainside with no road access where the summit can only be reached after by helicopter - or a full day's hiking.

A hyperspectral camera fitted to the drone was then linked to an AI engine to different identify species and generate highly accurate distribution maps.

OEH Ecosystems and Threatened Species team senior team leader Lucas Grenadier said it was “critical” for the OEH to understand the distribution of threatened species to effectively manage them.

He added the technology could also be used to better understand and manage “the levels of weed incursions and other threats”.

Weed monitoring and control is essential to effective environmental management because of the effects outbreaks can have on biodiversity, water management and agriculture.

NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton is a clear fan of getting a bird's eye view of conditions.

“It’s exciting to be using new drone technology with detailed layers of analytics behind them to get more accurate information including maps of otherwise inaccessible areas,” said Upton said..

Fujitsu said it would continue to refine the AI program used by training it with visual data collected from future drone flights at different altitudes.

The company said the program could also one day be used to identify threatened animal populations.

Similar trials have been already been successful in Queensland, with drones being used to kill weeds and AI to track invasive plants camouflaged against dense growth.

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