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Drones and AI to Enhance Marine Health

Charles Darwin University (CDU) is embarking on a project aimed at addressing the issue of marine debris in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The project will use advanced long-distance uncrewed autonomous aircraft to identify and map the presence and extent of ghost nets along approximately 958 km of Northern Territory coastline.

Ghost nets refer to fishing nets that have been abandoned, lost, or discarded in the ocean. These nets can be quite extensive, often measuring hundreds of meters in length, and have the ability to drift over considerable distances across the sea. As a result of ocean currents, these nets tend to accumulate in high concentrations within the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Marine species are at risk of injury or fatality when they become entangled in these ghost nets. The nets pose a significant threat to the well-being of various marine species within the Gulf of Carpentaria, as they can become trapped or entangled, leading to severe injuries or even death.

Thanks to funding of AU$400,000 from the Australian Government’s Ghost Nets Innovative Solutions Grants, CDU’s project will employ drones and advanced artificial intelligence software to detect and assess the amount of marine debris along remote and challenging-to-reach coastlines. This initiative aims to accurately identify and quantify the volume of marine debris, including ghost nets, using cutting-edge technology.

The project will be led by CDU’s North Australia Centre for Autonomous Systems (NACAS). The project will deliver immediate environmental benefits throughout the Gulf of Carpentaria. The significant threat posed by ghost nets to marine wildlife and coastal resources. The challenge lies in the vast stretches of Northern Territory coastline where these nets often wash ashore, requiring the efforts of small communities with limited resources.

Due to these limitations, ghost nets are frequently undetected and remain in place for extended periods, exacerbating their impact on wildlife and increasing the likelihood of them re-entering the ocean and drifting to other areas. The project’s primary objective is to provide real-time and precise information to ground crews, enabling them to plan recovery operations more effectively. This will result in the collection of a greater number of nets, reducing their presence in the ocean and minimizing the adverse effects on marine biodiversity.

During the project, drones equipped with high-resolution hyperspectral sensors will gather data. The drones will conduct low-altitude flights to survey the 45 islands situated within the Groote Archipelago. To develop coastal aerial imagery, artificial intelligence (AI) software will be employed.

For this aspect of the project, NACAS will collaborate with CDU’s Northern Territory Academic Centre for Cybersecurity and Innovation (ACCI). The partnership aims to leverage the expertise of ACCI in the field of AI to enhance the analysis and interpretation of the collected data for effective mapping and identification of marine debris, including ghost nets.

One of the key deliverables of the project is the creation of abundance distribution maps that depict the location and size of ghost nets. These maps will be generated as part of the project’s outcomes. The objective is to provide these maps to the Anindilyakwa Land & Sea Rangers, who are responsible for the management and conservation of the land and sea within their jurisdiction.

The maps will serve as valuable tools for the rangers, aiding them in their efforts to retrieve ghost nets. By having accurate information about the location and size of the nets, the rangers can strategise their retrieval operations more effectively, contributing to reducing the impact of ghost nets on the marine environment.

According to CDU’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Innovation the project illustrates the collaborative efforts of various research centres within CDU to effect positive change. The university’s researchers maintain strong connections across disciplines, and this project exemplifies how different centres can unite their expertise for the advancement of the Northern Territory. The initiative highlights CDU’s commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration and highlights the university’s collective efforts towards making a meaningful impact in the region.

A representative from Lingiari expressed her appreciation for CDU’s application of state-of-the-art technology in marine conservation efforts to tackle the issue of ghost nets, which pose a significant threat to the Gulf Sea Country. She commended the project funded by the Australian Government, emphasising its synergy with the work of the Anindilyakwa Sea Rangers. As part of the comprehensive approach, the funding of a dedicated vessel stationed on Groote Island, equipped to locate, and retrieve ghost nets effectively.

The devastating impact of ghost nets on marine species, including culturally significant and endangered animals such as turtles, dugongs, and dolphins. She expressed optimism regarding the emergence of a multi-faceted effort that would significantly contribute to addressing this issue. The combination of advanced technology, collaborative initiatives, and dedicated resources is expected to make a substantial difference in the conservation of the area.

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