A Murdoch University-led project which will use dugongs, artificial intelligence and drones to monitor seagrass ecosystems, has won $250,000 in funding from the Google.org Impact Challenge.
Led by Dr Amanda Hodgson, the project was one of 10 initiatives made finalists in the competition. It narrowly missed out on winning the overall prize of $1 million in funding.
Google’s financial backing will help Dr Hodgson and her team expand the capabilities of their Dugong Detector, which uses artificial intelligence to automatically find dugongs in images captured from drones.
The method is a cheaper, easier and safer way of monitoring notoriously shy dugongs – gentle marine mammals that range across 46 countries and feed almost exclusively on seagrass.
Dr Hodgson said the techniques used to develop the Dugong Detector could also be applied to different species in a range of different habitats, heralding a new era in ecosystem monitoring.
“Monitoring dugongs is a great way to keep an eye on seagrass health, because you don’t get one without the other,” Dr Hodgson said.
“Seagrass is one of the most vital habitats in the world, supporting more than half the world’s fisheries and feeding three billion people, so it’s important to be able to monitor its health on a large scale. The Dugong Detector will help us to achieve this, providing data that will feed into conservation efforts.
“We are excited to see whether we can roll the Dugong Detector out with researchers and communities in some of the developing nations where dugongs can be found. We can help them to take charge of their own monitoring projects and produce their own data.”
Dr Hodgson and her team pitched the project in just 90 seconds to a room of VIPs and judges at Google’s Sydney headquarters. They then answered questions from a judging panel which included Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel and Google Vice President Jacquelline Fuller.
Dr Hodgson’s team includes Murdoch researchers Dr Christophe Cleguer and Dr Julian Tyne, Dr Frederic Maire from Queensland University of Technology and researchers from Vienna University of Technology. The team is also partnered with the United Nations Dugong MOU.