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Microsoft teamed up with Indigenous traditional owners in Kakadu, using AI and drones to rehabilitate parts of the national park

Sharon Masige
  • Microsoft partnered with Indigenous rangers in Kakadu National Park and the CSIRO to rehabilitate wetland that has been affected by an introduced weed.
  • Drone footage and Microsoft AI have been used to keep track of native species such as magpie geese.
  • Since the project began a year ago, more than 2000 more magpie geese have returned to the wetlands.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Microsoft is blending Indigenous knowledge with AI to protect parts of Kakadu National Park.

The tech behemoth partnered with the CSIRO and Indigenous rangers at the World Heritage-listed park to restore native wildlife using artificial intelligence (AI).

Located in the Northern Territory, Kakadu is jointly managed by Parks Australia and traditional Indigenous owners. Its wetlands are home to protected Australian species such as magpie geese, which are considered by traditional custodians as a major indicator of ‘healthy country’.

But the introduction of a weed called para grass has seen the reduction of native plants and has removed habitats for the magpie geese.

Michael Douglas, leader of NESP Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub, explained that para grass was planted in the area during the late 1960s before Kakadu was a national park, used as buffalo and cattle feed. It has since been deemed an aggressive weed which chokes out native wetlands.

"It completely removes the native plants and as a result, we end up with huge losses of areas that would otherwise be really good breeding grounds and feeding grounds for things such as magpie geese, ducks and turtles," Douglas told Business Insider Australia.

Solving the issue

To solve the para grass problem, Microsoft teamed up with several organisations including the CSIRO, Parks Australia, Indigenous rangers at Kakadu, the Northern Australia National Environment Science Program (NESP), University of Western Australia, and Charles Darwin University for The Healthy Country project.

The project involved the use of Indigenous knowledge to identify what exactly to measure – such as magpie geese populations – while Microsoft brought in the tools to measure it, including their AI solutions and drones.

As a result, researchers no longer had to physically collect and review thousands of hours of video to count the animals and identify the progression of para grass.

Instead, a drone captures footage of the area then the images are downloaded and analysed by Microsoft's CustomVision AI system. The Indigenous rangers can then access the results on their mobile phones to help them with decision making on the ground, including everything from back burning to weed spraying.

Dr Cathy Robinson, Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO said the project has allowed AI to sit beside Indigenous knowledge and inform ways for caring for the land.

“In every part of that process, we've had to make sure that Indigenous knowledge is protected appropriately," she said. "That Indigenous knowledge is used appropriately to guide management decisions, and we weave together science, including AI, so that we can do that to deliver healthy country outcomes."

After a year of land management – including spraying of para grass – more than 2000 magpie geese have returned to the wetlands. It has also seen the return of ducks and turtles.

Douglas told Business Insider Australia the results "have been pretty stunning in such a short time". He explained that they have removed para grass from 90 hectares of land and while it is "a relatively small area", it is a high-profile area. "It's one of the most visited areas in the park by tourists and it's also the area that the traditional owners wanted us to manage para grass from."

An ethical approach

The project fits into Microsoft's broader ethos around the value of AI, especially the idea of democratising AI.

Lee Hickin, National Technology Officer at Microsoft Australia told Business Insider Australia democratising AI means taking the value and information AI brings and "putting it in the hands of people that can actually use it – in this case, park rangers and Indigenous landowners."

Robinson highlighted that the project is about an ethical approach that ensures Indigenous knowledge is handled in an appropriate way.

“This is the essence of responsible AI... making sure that we benefit Indigenous people, and their knowledge, through every single step of the way," she said in a statement.

The insights from this project will also be used to help others around the world. It will be available on Microsoft-owned platform GitHub so that other management projects on Indigenous lands worldwide can use it.

“Across the globe, Indigenous people are handling some pretty challenging questions. Their planet is under pressure, and much of that planet is owned by Indigenous people, particularly areas that have got high biodiversity assets," Robinson said.

But to be sensitive to cultural issues around collecting data, Microsoft developed three "rings" of data management. It means some information is restricted to traditional owners, some is made available to researchers, and some made available to the public.

Nonetheless, it looks like a step in the right direction for helping protect land around the world.

Feach Moyle, Kakadu National Park, Country and Culture Manager, Parks Australia said in a statement, “With so much of our environment under the protection of Indigenous communities, we now have another way forward that can assist those responsible for the care of these lands to make decisions that will ultimately deliver healthy country outcomes.”