16 December 2022
Improving livestock welfare by identifying and locating vertebrate pests such as wild dogs and feral herbivores is the aim of a drone mounted species recognition system underway in the Murchison region of WA’s Southern Rangelands.
The project will enable pastoralists and biosecurity groups early warning of potential feral animal incursions.
The project is funded by the Australian Government’s Agricultural Innovation Hubs Program, with support from the Southern Rangelands Pastoral Alliance, through the South-West WA Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub.
SRPA Executive Officer Margie Weir said this innovative technology can help to improve drought resilience in the Southern Rangelands.
“It will be particularly important in times of low feed availability, will assist the detection and management of non-domestic grazers and enable better rangeland management,” she said.
“Feral animal location and control will improve livestock welfare by identifying and locating feral predators such as wild dogs and feral cats.”
The project will provide early warning of feral animal incursion into pastoral properties, and contribute to a data base of feral animal movements and their damage to the environment and interaction with other livestock.
The idea was conceived by Murchison regional pastoralist Mayne Jenour and RC helicopter (drone) pilot Nigel Brown of Autonomous Technology, Perth.
Mayne and Nigel run 1200 Santa Gertrudis/Droughtmaster breeders and 1800 Damara/Dorper ewes across five pastoral stations in the Murchison region of WA totalling around two million acres. Over time the operation will run up to 3000 breeders and 10,000 sheep.
Mayne is secretary/treasurer of the Meekatharra Rangelands Biosecurity Association and a director on the Southern Rangelands Pastoral Alliance.
Mayne and his wife Leanne purchased the 120,000ha station Jingemarra in 2016 on the premise the Murchison Regional Vermin Cell would be built to protect the sheep flock from predation.
In the intervening years, the flock was run close to the homestead and a professional wild dog controller is based on the station.
Mayne was ground baiting along the station tracks as much of the country is rugged and inaccessible. The prospect of using a drone to inspect the country from above for wild dogs and distribute baits occupied his thoughts.
“The available commercial drones had a flight time of 15 minutes which gave a 5 minute fly-in time, 5 minutes to look around and 5 minutes back, and that was just not enough,” he said.
Mayne contacted Nigel Brown, Autonomous Technology Managing Director and mechanical engineer, to investigate modifying an industrial size drone with a long flight time to carry a wild dog bait carousel.
Nigel has been developing drone technology and sensors for the past 18 years.
Their prototype drone, equipped with a camera and thermal imaging software, has been tested on Jingemarra.
It has an 10kg payload of 72 baits, a flight time of 1 hour 20 minutes at maximum speed of 140km/hr and is remotely controlled from the office desktop. 3D printing technology was used to create the bait carousel with sausage bait as the model.
“We program a flight path across the rugged, inaccessible country and drop baits into there,” Mayne said.
Mayne and Nigel are building a second model – a petrol/electric hybrid with a four to six-hour flight time and 1100 bait carousel.
“That new drone will carry 100kg and gives the flexibility of multi-tasking while it is in the air,” Mayne said.
A grant obtained by the Southern Rangelands Pastoral Alliance is enabling the pair to add species recognition software developed by UNE, the NSW Government and Centre for Invasive Species Solutions, called the Wild Dog Alert Node, for large feral herbivores including donkeys, camels and wild horses.
The solar powered Wild Dog Alert Node incorporates technology unavailable on commercial camera traps, and contains a small computer which processes the images captured by a 360 degree camera and sensor system.
Onboard artificial intelligence software detects the presence of a dog and sends a text alert message via satellite to the Wild Dog Alert Cloud service on the user’s app or email.
“The idea is to send the drone out to the station’s peripheral areas where there are incursions of large feral herbivores. It will use thermal imaging (body heat signal) to locate the animal and species recognition software to identify the feral pessts and then alert the pastoralists,” Mayne said.
“This will give people an early warning of what is coming – once the animals get to a water point it is too late as they exclude the cattle from drinking and smash the infrastructure.
“It can be looking for and baiting wild dogs at the same time as monitoring water troughs and windmills during flights.
“At the moment we have line of sight communication (20-30km) to the base station but do have the facility to link with a cellular network. We are looking at utilising Elon Musk’s Starlink system with one node connection to the homestead and a series of towers to create a WiFi mesh across the station.
“The drone will beam information in and out of the WiFi mesh to the operator.”
Nigel said it was about designing ease of loading, dispensing and dispersal.
“It had to be lightweight and simple to use, and we came up with a unique concept of single drop delivery where the drone can deliver a single drop of baits, a large bait or three smaller baits,” he said.
“When the release mechanism is triggered, the GPS location is recorded on the drone.
“The helicopter drone is a stable platform, operates in adverse weather conditions and has long endurance for a drone.”
Mayne and Nigel are refining the algorithms, software, machine capacity and bait carousel size before commercialisation.
Nigel said the larger model with a 100kg payload capacity under development could be used for large scale carbon capturing projects carrying multispectral and photogrammetric cameras along with several sensors for different data streams.
He said the large drone could be used for transporting goods, inspecting boundary fences and water point monitoring.
“This technology will give the professional dog trappers and landholders a new tool to access a lot of areas potentially housing feral herbivores and wild dogs, to deploy larger volumes of baits and be more targeted in baiting programs,” Nigel said.
“It will be easily integrated into the home internet system with the capability to monitor remotely from the home office.”
On the station, Mayne is ground baiting for wild dogs at one per 100m and is trialling one per 40m.
“We are doing more intensive targeted baiting rather than blanket baiting in areas of wild dog activity and don’t target other areas unless there is activity there,” he said.
The station experienced 225mm of flooding rain in August washing out a 5m section of the Murchison Regional Vermin Cell.
“The washout created a funnelling effect for five wild dogs over a week about 5km from our sheep flock, allowing predation by wild dogs,” he said.
“Within a fortnight we had controlled the dogs using baiting and trapping, and closed the gap.”
Mayne and Nigel have bought the neighbouring station to bring their Yalgoo aggregation to 550,000ha with exclusion fencing on the northern, western and southern boundaries.
“We have completed 30km on our south-eastern boundary and we have 120km to go. Once that is completed, we will have 1.3 million acres (526,000ha) in our own exclusion cell within the Murchison Regional Vermin Cell.”
They believe the exclusion cell will enable them to increase their Damara/Dorper cross flock through reduced wild dog predation.
“The Damara/Dorper cross are foraging animals similar to goats which spreads grazing pressure compared to a Merino. A 150 per cent lambing rate combined with early weaning at an 18kg liveweight will result in improved ewe body condition, and potentially three lambings in two years.”
For more information on pest animal monitoring and evaluation click here.