- Think outside the square: find a researcher working with creative solutions to old problems
- Are there other applications for the technology other than the intended industry?
Victoria is the biggest food and fibre exporter in Australia, valued at $8 billion a year. According to David Williams, a Principal Research Scientist in the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) the department had a desire to document the environmental sustainability of Victorian farms and help bolster the strength of the Victorian agricultural sector.
The need to measure biodiversity led Williams to the work of Professor Stuart Gage from Michigan State University in the United States, who has developed acoustic indices and algorithms that measure the amount of energy in each frequency range and from that calculate an area's biodiversity.
Inspired by biophonic measurement of biodiversity in US water catchments, Williams decided to apply an acoustic index.
'I was interested in using the index to demonstrate how good the agricultural production system was in terms of biodiversity, so we got some money from DEPI to do a pilot study,' Williams says.
However, the study led to an enormous amount of acoustic data collected from a recorder left in the field, and no fast way to upload it and begin analysis.
Applying for the Market Validation Program
Armed with the study results and his technology requirements, Williams successfully bid for the Market Validation Program.
His requirements were for a cheap and robust automated sensor system that would monitor biodiversity via sound. The sensors, which would record the data, needed to be deployed in a production orchard and networked with data collection that would be managed remotely.
The successful design came from Procept a Melbourne-based company that specialises in embedded systems and had a track record of delivering technology innovation in health, mining, defence and science.
'The biophony project allowed us to really apply some of our intellectual property around wireless technology and hardware design,' says Procept Managing Director Aaron Maher.
The system includes up to ten sensor stations, which record and store high-definition audio. A dual-band mesh network, operating at 2.4 GHz and 900 MHz, allowed the data to be transferred over large areas by hopping through the network to a gateway, which automatically uploaded the captured audio to a remote content server, accessible via a website.
'The complexity is really the transfer of high-definition audio around a wireless network that can span kilometres, as well as transfer data back to a server and process all of that in a format that scientists can use,' says Maher.
Successful species identification has broad application
This is only the beginning, according to the collaboration partners.
'With the way we have recorded this data, you can get a sonic fingerprint of what's out there. So you can, in theory, teach the computer to identify signals down to a species level,' says Williams.
With this capability, he says, the department will look at the possibility of identifying predatory animals, exotic incursions and endangered species, though for the moment it is concentrating on further biophony research in different vegetation habitats.
Gage is also excited about the research possibilities of automated biophony, 'Scientists often take ages to get meaningful information to the decision-makers, and we need to do it in a much more timely and user-friendly way. This system makes it feasible to assess ecosystem health in real time'.
For Maher, 'It has opened up potentially a multi-million dollar business,' he says. 'We have found that this system applies to so many industries - mining, defence.'
This project was funded under the Victorian Government's Market Validation Program (MVP).
With the aid of the Market Validation Program, Victoria’s Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), along with an electronic product developer and soundscape ecologist, found a way to calculate a farm’s biodiversity remotely by recording and analysing the collective sound insects and animals make in the natural environment-biophony.