Drone confirms presence of growing threat to Australia

A process that would have taken an hour on foot took just 15 minutes to complete.

Two men with their back to the camera, flying a drone above hills in Ginninderry. The water sample is visible, hanging below the drone.
A drone has been used to collect water from a river in Ginninderry so it could be tested for deer DNA. Source: DAFF

Drones have been flown over a river on the fringes of suburbia to confirm the presence of an invasive animal that’s plaguing Australia. Fallow are one of the most widespread deer species in the country — largely because the Victorian, NSW and Tasmanian governments protected them for years as a hunting resource.

And while it was no surprise that water samples taken from Ginninderry, north of Canberra, tested positive, simply confirming their presence was just the beginning of a project being trialled by the federal Department of Agriculture (DAFF). “We actually chose an invasive species that we knew definitely was in the area,” DAFF’s director of innovation Jessica May told Yahoo News.

The plan was to prove it's technically possible to fly the drones over a river, capture the water in hydrasleeves, and then send it back for human testing. Researchers then examined its environmental DNA, using a similar method used to track drugs or Covid-19 in sewage.

The key benefit of the trial is that the flying, testing to confirm the fallow deer, and packing up were completed in 15 minutes. Trekking across paddocks, wading into the water and collecting samples by hand would have taken an hour.

A still shows a drone dropping a hydrasleeve into a river at Ginninderry.
A drone drops a hydrasleeve into a river at Ginninderry. Source: DAFF

May is hopeful the trial will soon allow scientists to reach rugged areas that are dangerous for humans to venture across and test for emerging threats that are less widespread. And there are two problem insect species that researchers hope their technology could help fight very soon.

“We can look potentially for red imported fire ants or yellow crazy ants — the runoff from their nests would go into the water and we could confirm they’re in the area,” she said.

The process could also be used to monitor for the spread of agricultural diseases like foot and mouth disease and African swine fever in feral pig populations in the far north. And an even more pressing disease issue is avian influenza which has killed millions of domestic and wild birds around the world.

“Birds shed DNA through their faeces. It goes into the water and we can pick that up and confirm avian influenza is in the area,” May said. “It’s about confirming, detecting and monitoring things in the area to see if it’s spread or moved.”

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