Rangelands NRM Blog, News & Resources

Attacking rubber vine infestation from the Internet

[March 2015]

An innovative project in the Kimberley is using crowd sourcing to identify occurrences of the weed rubber vine in aerial photographs.

After four years of evolution, the current Aquila Project has been funded by State NRM Strategic grants program and supported by Rangelands NRM, to search and control rubber vine infestations that threaten to completely overrun the Fitzroy River in the West Kimberley.

Project Manager John Szymanski said if this happens, the habitat would become a monoculture of rubber vine with few local plants surviving and access to the river by humans, local fauna and cattle would be near on impossible.

During the dry months of each year, ‘Team Rubber Vine’ (indigenous locals Kelvin and Dougie along with Team Leader John), walk 25 kilometres a day searching for the vine and destroying those that are found. During the end of each wet season, ‘Team Astro’ (WA Department of Agriculture and Food’s Mick Everett, pilot William (Butch) Maher and John), complete a helicopter search of the entire area looking for flowering vines. It is during these searches that thousands of aerial photos have been taken.

Mr Szymanski said the Aquila project is about using the ultra-high resolution imagery taken from the chopper and presenting it on a website for volunteers to search for rubber vine flowers.

This year we have captured around 350,000 images, each divided into 12 sections. These sections are presented on a computer screen so the viewer can easily see if rubber vine is present.

“Now that’s a lot of images, so a critical part of the project is the development of software which will reduce the large number of images,” he said.

Specific criteria are set for the software to look for images that potentially have rubber vine. The criteria is then tweaked and the software has capacity to reduce the images that need to be viewed by 99.9 per cent.

“A volunteer can take the image in and make a decision pretty quickly if there is rubber vine there or not from seeing large white flowers of the plant,” Mr Szymanski said.

At the moment the project has around 60 volunteers signed up and it is being promoting in all sorts of areas to get more volunteers involved.

The more volunteers we have, the more we can relax the criteria and make sure there are no images which potentially have a vine, which are not presented to our volunteers, Mr Szymanski said.

We are at the cutting edge of incorporating technology and this model of using software to recognise target features in photos, and then getting volunteers to assist further. Volunteers play a critical part in the process. They search the images to help us find rubber vine, but their work also assists us to perfect our image detection software.

“What is wonderful is that those who can’t get out in the field to do conservation work, can still be engaged, any time and from any place,” Mr Szymanski said.

If the model is shown to work, Mr Szymanski said other plants can also be identified using the same process.

“For example, we can do a mesquite survey, using cameras and pointing the software at the mesquite. Mesquite appears to the naked eye to be quite a target. The software may well be accurate enough to find every mesquite, and volunteers may not be required. There are many weeds where the Aquila Model has great potential,” he said.

Once rubber vine is identified in an image by a volunteer, we also check the image and then head out and kill the pests. That is it! The aerial search and virtual aerial search are a valuable part of our eradication program.

More information:

Visit www.friendsofthefitzroy.com.au and join Team Aquila and help in the search for the vine.

Section of an image taken by the chopper, that will be presented over the Internet (J.Szymanski)
The last day of the 12-day chopper search for rubber vine. Greg Michat Pilot and Mick Everett 1st Observer Department of Food and Agriculture WA. (J.Szymanski)