Writings: Biosecurity Qld's 'game-changer' - to detect fire ant nests with high-res cameras mounted on a helicopter - is a loser. Program Steering Committee can't prove fire ants eradicated. Time for a Royal Commission.

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The Steering Committee of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, chaired by Dr Wendy Craik, must prove the current $500m Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program 2017-27 has eradicated fire ants.

The Steering Committee knows it can’t.  As numerous independent reviews, including by the Queensland Audit Office and its own Risk Management Committee have said since 2001, the program has never collected reliable and consistent performance data. It can’t prove anything.  

The program’s Scientific Advisory Group said the only chance of surveying the vast area of the infestation, 650,000ha by December 2019, was with an update version of remote sensing technology that is still under-developed because of enormous technical and regulatory issues.

But in the November 2020 edition of Biosecurity News Biosecurity Queensland is claiming that detecting fire ant nests from the sky using high-resolution cameras fitted to helicopters is a potential ‘game-changer’ for the program. Steering Committee knows it is a loser.

Biosecurity Queensland’s trial of the technology between 2010 and 2015 was a disaster.

In 2009, the independent scientific review led by Professor Roush from the University of Melbourne, was alarmed the fire ant infestation had blown out from 28,000ha in 2001, to what they called ‘an all-time high’ of 93,000 in 2009. They said this was evidence the programs methods for finding and killing fire ants were not working and the program needed to find new methods.  They were not impressed when the only new method the program offered was remote-sensing technology for finding fire ant nests with thermal imaging camera mounted on a helicopter.

They were concerned:

  • the technology would not be able to distinguish between fire ant nests and other warm elliptical objects like cow pat and rocks, so identify virtually everything as a fire ant nest.
  • trials of the technology in the USA showed a 17.5% false positive rating, meaning there is 17.5% chance the technology would falsely declare an area fire ant free because it had not detected small incipient nests.
  • The technology could only be used between May and September when the ground was cool enough to detect warm fire ant nests and the helicopters could not fly during wet and windy weather. It was likely fire ants would spread faster than the technology could find them.
  • About the huge technical difficulties integrating the images from three complex camera and the need for huge capacity to store and analyse huge amounts of data.

Biosecurity Queensland ignored the advice and trialled the technology between 2010 and 2015.

  • The three cameras could not focus on the same spot.
  • The system could not integrate the electronics of three cameras.
  • The system identified 5,200,000 possible nests – mostly cow pats and rocks.
  • Field staff inspected 67,000 possible nests and found only three infested properties and a total of six nests. The Courier Mail had a field day saying ‘$7.2, 2 years 85,000ha and this is all they found!’
  • A review of the trail of the technology in 2015 said it detected a total of 38 colonies on 23 sites while the infestation blew out from 100,000ha to over 300,000ha.
  • The technology has not been used since.

But in 2018, Steering Committee, desperate to be able prove the program has eradicated fire ants, commissioned Outline Global Pty Ltd to advise on an up-dated remote-sensing system. Their report in December 2018 sounds very much like the Roush report of 2009 said. They said:

  • the basic premise that fire ant nests could be detected with thermal imaging because they are warmer than their surrounds during cooler months, was false. Soil clumps, cow pats, rocks and wood were also warmer than their surrounds and were identified as fire ant nests. The technology was identifying virtually everything as a fire ant nest.
  • The technology was missing actual fire ant nests because it identified them as clumps of soil.
  • Any future remote-sensing surveillance technology would need to address serious technological and regulatory issues. It would need:
    • to collect five sources of data, not just the three as previously,
    • additional hardware to synchronise different cameras from different manufactures.
    • Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approval to mount the system on a helicopter.
    • a GPS system that could access both US and Russian satellite constellations.
    • software to facilitate inflight camera configurations.
    • high speed, high capacity storage system to store two images per second for each of the four cameras for up to six hours a day.
    • approval from the US State Department for any cameras or components imported from the USA to ensure it met International Traffic Arms Regulations to control the use of defence related technology, and
    • the helicopter to fly higher and faster than previously.

Time for a Royal Commission to hold the Steering Committee of National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication, chaired by Dr Wendy Craik, to account for an out-of-control fire ant infestation and the waste of around, to date, $560m of  public money.

5th April 2021