In Western Australia, drones battle hated skeleton weed on farms

drones skeleton weed

Officials in the state of Western Australia are preparing what is becoming an annual deployment of drones to help farmers of wheat in one of the nation’s richest agricultural regions battle the nutrient-sucking plague of skeleton weed.

Though still nominally in the research phase, the use of sensor-equipped drones to identify and map skeleton weed across Western Australia’s so-called Grainbelt proved successful enough last year to replicate again this growing season. The campaign is overseen by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) in partnership with local actors. It will cover nearly 99,000 hectares in an attempt to locate skeleton weed (Chondrilla juncea) – an officially designated “pest plant” that’s particularly effective in consuming nourishing nitrogen and soil moisture that nearby crops need.

“The drones are installed with digital imaging technology to accurately and confidently capture, record, and map the presence of skeleton weed to aid eradication strategies and treatments,” says DPIRD project manager Martin Atwell, who notes early identification will allow for more effective action as Australia’s summer progresses. “Harvest is the best time to observe the weed, providing an opportunity for early detection and making eradication more feasible.”

This year’s drone-led battle against skeleton weed will focus on 54,000 acres of the overall zone involved, and 200 specific farming properties. In addition to identifying places where the invasive pest is already growing, aerial maps created from the missions will give agricultural officials a better idea of nearby land it’s likely to spread to. 

Testing of UAVs for a variety of agricultural missions began about five years back. The increasing sophistication of onboard tech – and better understanding of how that can be used by authorities – confirmed the promise of the aerial approach, especially in the case of drone deployment against skeleton weed.

“The cutting-edge research is combining image analysis with machine learning to detect skeleton weed plants, to determine if new plants are coming from old crowns or dormant rootstocks or seedlings,” explains DPIRD senior research scientist John Moore. “The same technology is also being used to determine the effect of skeleton weed treatments on crop growth.”

In very general terms, the approach is similar to the use of drones by researchers on the other side of Australia to conduct a population count of koala bears, whose populations were decreased by recent wildfires. While that involves onboard artificial intelligence and facial recognition sensors to identify and record individual koalas, the task of spotting any kind of skeleton weed in Western Australia is somewhat easier.

“Skeleton weed has upright and usually leafless stems which gives the appearance of the skeleton of a plant,” says Atwell, adding that in addition to chemical means of eradication, the DPIRD is also examining use of microwave radiation to defeat the botanical pest.

Photo: Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development

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