Air strikes on woody weeds

Australia is declaring war on weeds with unmanned aerial vehicles, as used by the US military. Alan Harman reports.
Issue date : 11 July 2008

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The CIA uses them to target terrorists and now the Australians plan to use them against weeds. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are to be used in the vast inland regions of Australia as weed spotters and sprayers. A new project, funded by Meat and Livestock and conducted by the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at the University of Sydney, will develop and test UAV surveillance systems designed to detect woody weed infestations and provide information for control and eradication programmes.

Woody weed infestations that cover large open grassland areas are often difficult to detect and control, so management can be costly, haphazard and time-consuming. Occupational health and safety concerns and labour availability also make weed control difficult on larger properties. he ACFR is the world’s leading UAV research and development organisation and has collaborated on programmes with the US Air Force, the Office of Naval Research and the UK Ministry of Defence, as well as on civilian organisations dealing with aquatic weeds, ecology management and animal tracking.

ACFR project leader Prof Salah Sukkarieh says this research aims to develop a UAV system that can help a single operator detect and treat woody weed infestation over large areas. “Two types of UAV systems will be available – a fixed wing UAV for broadacre surveillance and a hovering UAV for precision targeting around the weed,” he says. The project will focus on the sensor and data algorithms needed to distinguish woody weeds from other vegetation. he project will also design an efficient herbicide distributor on a hovering UAV, for the pinpoint placement of herbicide.

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The aircraft and detection algorithms will be demonstrated at the University of Sydney’s farm, followed by further testing at a remote field site representative of extensive grassland infested with woody weeds. The ACFR is developing a similar programme for detecting aquatic weeds. E-mail Prof Salah Sukkarieh at [email protected]. |fw