SpaceCows – using AI, space technology and cloud to protect the Top End



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A feral buffalo can weigh 1,200 kgs (2,645 pounds) and stand 188 centimeters (6 feet 2 inches) at the shoulder. They are huge, unpredictable animals – and although Crocodile Dundee was able to stare one down in a movie, in real life they are far more dangerous to people and the environment.

Introduced by pioneer farmers in Australia’s far north in the 1800s, buffalo went wild in the mid-1900s when settlements were abandoned and stock was set loose.

Today feral animals – both buffalo and cattle – are a major threat to the ecology and economy of Northern Australia. Millions of dollars are invested in feral animal management programs – but a new approach is being investigated that brings together on the ground Indigenous knowledge, space technology and artificial intelligence with a goal to create the world’s largest remote herd management system.

Aerial shot of landscape which shows buffalo damage
The damage caused by feral buffalo is widespread

Microsoft has been working with CSIRO on the groundbreaking initiative – developing AI algorithms and machine learning pipelines that will act as the digital foundations for the program. This is intended to build new economic, environmental and cultural opportunities as well as create evidence backed ‘best practice’ for managing large herds using AI and space technology.

Buffalo damage on land
Feral herds can damage the land

The SmartHerd management program is a $4 million AUD ($2.9 million USD), four-year initiative led by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO. SmartHerd will see more than 1,000 unmanaged cows and buffalos electronically tracked using GPS satellite tracking tags.

In a program dubbed SpaceCows, the animals will be tracked across a combined 22,000-plus square kilometre area, taking in the Arafura swamp catchment in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and Upper Normanby and Archer River on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula.

Instead of using conventional wireless technology, which does not lend itself to the natural topography and harsh environment in Australia’s far north, tag data will be collected using Kinéis’ 25 nanosatellites IoT constellation, at 650 km of altitude   and Microsoft Azure.

Artificial intelligence will interpret the data and provide forecasts to Indigenous rangers using Power BI dashboards. This will allow the rangers to take targeted actions to control problem animals in order to protect the environment and important cultural sites. This approach also creates economic opportunities by enabling the ethical harvesting and sale of feral livestock.

An extension of the Healthy Country AI partnership with CSIRO, which has already helped protect Magpie Geese in Kakadu National Park and endangered turtles nesting on Cape York, the SpaceCows project is a partnership between CSIRO, Microsoft the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), satellite IoT company Kinéis, James Cook University, Mimal Land Management Aboriginal Corporation, Aak Puul Ngangtam, Normanby Land Management and Charles Darwin University.

Ethical approach

The project is supported by the Smart Farming Partnership initiative, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program and focusses on creating a roadmap to help the administration of unmanaged herds on indigenous lands. Besides supporting on-ground local capability in the ethical mustering and handling of feral cattle and buffalo the program will develop an accredited training and education program, expanding the digital skills and on-country employment opportunities for indigenous people.

Dr Andrew Hoskins, research scientist, CSIRO says; “The key to doing this efficiently and cheaply is to use a satellite-based radio technology.

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