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“It’s the terrible feeling of being defenceless, the not knowing if wild dogs are around the property, the not knowing when they might attack the flock.”
This is a familiar comment from woolgrowers and other sheep producers in areas affected by wild dogs – and it is a demonstration of how wild dogs can affect the emotional well-being of farmers as well as their financial bottom line.
However, the development of a prototype new tool is well under way that aims to firmly place woolgrowers and other land managers on the front foot to manage wild dogs. The Wild Dog Alert Node is a ‘camera trap’ with advanced computer software, capable of satellite communication, that can visually identify wild dogs and then send a real-time alert to a landholder’s mobile phone or other device.
It will therefore enable landholders to receive immediate information about the location of individual wild dogs and allow the landholders (and cooperating landholders and wild dog controllers in the local area) to take instant action to disrupt and discourage wild dog attacks.
The system will also provide wild dog control groups with an unprecedented opportunity to monitor wild dog activity and efficiently guide the development and review of strategic regional wild dog management plans.
“Often, wild dog control has necessarily been reactive and expensive, with woolgrowers and contractors effectively forced to ‘chase’ dogs after sheep have been maimed and killed,” said AWI Program Manager Vertebrate Pests, Ian Evans.
“In chronic cases this can go on for weeks, months or even years, taking a heavy toll on enterprises, families and communities.
“But if sheep producers could reliably detect dogs before they attack, at any hour and at even the most distant locations of their property, then there could be an opportunity to thwart a dog attack.
“Early warning technology could therefore allow woolgrowers to take the initiative back from the dogs and allow growers to protect their stock.
“There are also more strategic benefits of using this new system, such as woolgrowers and other land managers following wild dog movements to help in the planning of more effective bait campaigns and measurement of their effectiveness.”
DEVELOPING WILD DOG ALERT
The development of the Wild Dog Alert system is being undertaken by researchers at the University of New England (UNE) and the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) with support from AWI along with the Department of Agriculture & Water Resources and Meat & Livestock Australia, through the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions.
The aim is for the research project to build and deliver a prototype Wild Dog Alert Node by June next year, which if successful will then be followed by a commercialisation process.
Researcher Paul Meek of NSW DPI and UNE said Wild Dog Alert will bring together significant developments in automated recognition technology and remote satellite communication.
“Our initial field evaluations confirmed that using current off-the-shelf technology to detect, capture, identify and transmit image data as a foundation for the Wild Dog Alert was inadequate and did not meet the team’s technological expectations or requirements for a robust and reliable real-time alert system,” Paul said
“The off-the-shelf camera traps are unreliable; they miss detections depending on the time of day, the placement of the camera and the direction the animal walks in proximity to the camera trap. As a result, the research team took the decision to build another device from the ground up, using the latest cutting-edge technology.
“What we are designing and testing now is a unique prototype with more capacity and capability than any known technology of its kind in the world.”
The ground-breaking standalone camera trap device that the team has built to detect wild dogs is currently being field tested in Australian environments, from the tablelands to the rangelands, under realistic conditions representative of where the devices will be deployed, such as sheep properties.
WILD DOG ALERT COMPONENTS
Notably, the camera trap has a tri-sensor system to detect animal presence, unlike most conventional camera traps that just rely on a PIR (passive infrared) sensor. This means that detection is optimised. It has 360-degree sensor and camera coverage so that the camera device can track and capture imagery of a wild dog on a 360-degree axis. At night the wild dog is illuminated by infrared flashes.
“To the best of our knowledge it is the first camera trap device in the world to have 360-degree sensor and camera coverage so that the device can detect a dog approaching from any direction, then take a photo, process the image and send an alert using both 3G and satellite communication systems,” Paul said.
Field testing during daytime and night includes evaluating the detector’s range, efficiency and interference from the sun or other environmental effects (such as bugs on the camera lens and shadows from trees that might give ‘false detections’).
Another important consideration is to ensure the system is robust under operational field conditions, such that the device can cope with wind, dust, frost, torrential rain and extreme heat.
A camera trap system of this kind requires significant battery power, so the team has custom-developed a solar panel and battery system to ensure image detection and processing can be done at any time of day.
One significant consideration of the battery design is that unlike other remote monitoring systems it is designed to greatly minimise the risk of over-heat that could potentially start a bushfire.
“There is some seriously complex artificial intelligence incorporated into the Wild Dog Alert Node too,” says Greg Falzon, the brains trust behind the device.
“We have incorporated algorithms that can recognise and differentiate dogs from other animals, and that also know when a moving subject (like a shadow, which can trigger off-the-shelf camera traps) is not a dog.
“We have an algorithm that uses facial recognition to uniquely identify with a high degree of accuracy individual wild dogs. So our team is really on the cutting edge of global technology.
“The Wild Dog Alert Node is our prototype of future technology. We’ve pushed ourselves to do this because we are ultra-motivated and extremely keen to help fix some of the challenges faced by Australian woolgrowers.”
Another important function of the Wild Dog Alert system is the capacity to transmit a message of a dog detection where no telecommunication network exists. To solve this issue the team has built a satellite transmission component into the device so that remoteness is not a limiting factor to adoption and use.
“The team has been testing satellite transmission from different locations in Australia to see whether there are any black-holes in landscapes like gorges and deep rainforest where satellite signals may be impeded. So far, the results have been extremely encouraging, with few locations, even in the gorge country, not transmitting signals,” Paul said.
After the prototype is suitably field tested, commercialised and is available for production, it is anticipated that Wild Dog Alert will provide landholders with real-time notification on devices such as a smartphone, tablet, computer or other remote connection device.
“The technology built and now incorporated into the Wild Dog Alert is pioneering and has much broader applications for future technological tools,” Paul added.
“Interestingly, the device can be programmed to recognise other species, such as foxes.“In developing a prototype system for Wild Dog Alert, the team has also developed many additional software applications that could be made available to interested parties, which represents significant value for money.”
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