Managing Australia’s annual grain harvest is a huge logistics challenge for farmers and agri-businesses. Handling grain in Australia, including planning for harvest, transport, storage and marketing, costs in the order of $1 billion each year. Even small improvements in efficiency could result in significant benefits for our 30,000 grain growers, grain handlers and the national economy.
Each operator along the grains supply chain has a unique need for customised grains information, however, Australia doesn’t have a comprehensive national system for forecasting yield and geo‑locating crop areas with required accuracy at a locally relevant scale.
As part of our Digiscape Future Science Platform (read more at: Our investment in emerging areas of science and Digiscape), we built a breakthrough, real-time grain forecasting, monitoring and crop identification technology, GraincastTM, for the Australian grain growing industry. GraincastTM provides estimates of crop area, near real-time forecasts of crop yield, and estimates of uncertainty for the agricultural value chain to make better – and new – decisions.
Developing GraincastTM was technically complex and required a range of skill sets from agronomists to climate scientists, data and machine learning experts, satellite and remote sensing experts, software engineers and social scientists.
The GraincastTM smarts are packaged in multiple ways for different parts of the grain supply chain. There is a simple, free app, available at graincast.io for farmers to monitor their soil moisture and yield potential at the touch of a button. The GraincastTM app monitored 750 paddocks over the 2019 growing season and is being accessed by farmers as the 2020 growing season progresses.
GraincastTM also produces yield forecast maps at paddock, farm or regional scale for any part of the country for multiple grains. In early 2020, we licensed exclusive global rights to the technology to Digital Agriculture Services (DAS), an Australian rural technology start-up of which we are a founding equity partner. For the first time, farmers can now see their 2019 GraincastTM results integrated with a range of other publicly available agri, rural and climate risk insights at no cost on the DAS Rural Intelligence PlatformTM at digitalagricultureservices.com.
Winning genetics put Australian Atlantic salmon industry on front foot
An ongoing 16-year research collaboration that is improving the genetics of Atlantic salmon has been pivotal to helping the Australian industry grow more than 350 per cent in the last two decades and develop into Australia’s largest seafood sector.
Rough seas can be the least of the concerns faced by Australian salmon producers, with disease, early maturation and warming water impacting harvests and product quality. Responding to these pressures, a world-leading Atlantic salmon selective breeding program was established.
Since 2004, we’ve partnered with Salmon Enterprises of Tasmania (Saltas) – a salmon hatchery and breeding centre that is jointly owned by ASX‑listed companies Tassal and Huon Aquaculture – to improve the sustainability of the industry and the quality of the Atlantic salmon delivered to plates across Australia.
This multidisciplinary research included our agriculture and food, oceans and atmosphere, and data science researchers.
The research has delivered Atlantic salmon stock that grows 35 per cent faster than the founder stock and are 37 per cent more resistant to amoebic gill disease, an infection that can suffocate fish and costs the industry $20 million per annum to treat. These gains continue to accumulate at four to five per cent every year.
New technology has been integrated and the program has evolved in pursuit of greater gains. Adoption of genomic selection technology, introduced in 2015, has resulted in a step change in future gains and allowed greater flexibility in responding to future challenges, such as the need to select for improved performance in warmer waters.
The resultant increases in revenue and savings in disease treatment costs have helped the industry grow by 351 per cent from around $215.4 million in 2001 to $756 million in 2016–17. An economic study in 2016 found that the salmon breeding program has contributed $169.3 million in value since its establishment, with a benefit‑cost ratio of approximately $27 for each dollar invested.
The Atlantic salmon selective breeding program is an outstanding example of how our world-leading science has partnered with industry to help it grow – in this case increasing employment in Tasmania – to address challenges, and deliver products that are recognised globally as adding to Australia’s reputation for quality.
Predicting bushfire spread with next-generation modelling
In Australia, the annual cost of natural disasters is forecast to quadruple from $6.3 billion a year to approximately $23 billion by 2050.1 Although a natural occurrence in Australia, bushfires can be devastating, particularly when they encounter homes, infrastructure and people. Improved knowledge of how bushfires spread is critical for emergency management operations, risk prediction and issuing timely warnings.
This knowledge can also be used to predict the spread of bushfires using computer models. Predictions can allow better preparation for emergency situations, save lives and make communities safer, stronger and more resilient. However, there are many elements that influence fire behaviour, making it difficult to accurately predict fire spread.
To help combat this, our researchers developed Spark, an open framework that takes our current knowledge of fire behaviour and combines it with state-of-the-art simulation science to produce predictions, statistics and visualisations of bushfire spread.
Spark can read meteorological data and use wind, temperature and humidity information directly within fire models. Geographic information, such as land slope, vegetation, and un-burnable areas such as roads and water bodies, can also be incorporated, each with their own defined fire spread rate. The platform also allows simulation of any number of distinct fire fronts, multi-front interaction, and coalescence as the fire evolves.
Spark can simulate hours of fire spread across a landscape in a matter of seconds. Due to its fast computational time and capabilities, it can be used across infrastructure planning, land management and fuel reduction burning, firefighting resource allocation and deployment, evacuation route planning, reconstructing historical fire events, ecological impacts and fire regime studies, and suppression strategy analysis.
Thousands of simulations can be run in parallel, across different spatial locations, or using different weather conditions. This allows Spark to provide information on when communities and assets will be reached by fire, and for users to create customised risk maps over large regions or conditions.
Spark is being used for scientific research into fire spread mechanisms, including new fire behaviour model testing, research into automatic fuel estimation from remote sensing data, investigations into wind and fuel variations, fundamental forms of fire shape, wind and terrain interaction, and to develop new spot fire models.
Spark has been trialled by New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmanian fire authorities, and we are in discussion with authorities in the United States, South America and Europe about potential international trials. Development continues with new features being considered, including planning modules for preparing for other emergencies, such as terrorist threats and chemical accidents, and incorporating virtual reality devices for users to be placed in an immersive simulated environment.
Using robotics to improve safety in complex environments
Ensuring the safety of people in high-risk environments is a critical challenge across many industries. Research shows that 17 Australians have been fatally injured in the construction and mining industries so far in 2020, representing 24 per cent of all recorded work-related deaths across the country.2
Our researchers have demonstrated that machine learning and robotics can play a crucial role in improving workers’ safety. They are participating in the three-year DARPA Subterranean Challenge, funded by the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The challenge requires teams to develop and demonstrate technologies that can map, navigate and search three different underground courses, including the inside of a nuclear power plant.
The team of scientists showcased our world-leading expertise by pairing legged and tracked robots with novel Hovermap drone autonomy technology, which can operate in areas where GPS is not available. The team was able to rapidly explore and generate 3D maps of underground environments using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanners, providing unprecedented situational awareness for use in time‑critical scenarios, such as disaster response.
Using cutting-edge software that we developed, along with cameras and sensors, the robots generated a map of the underground structures and stayed in touch with the scientists through communication nodes designed to operate in harsh environments.
Participating in the challenge is helping to fast-track the development of these technologies, which have huge potential for improving safety and efficiency in a range of industries including mining, transport, building and construction, defence and agriculture.
It will enable us to build on our strong track record of translating robotics and autonomous systems research into real-world impact, such as with Hovermap. Hovermap completed the world’s first fully autonomous beyond line-of-sight drone flight in an underground mine, 600 metres below the surface in Western Australia. The team that developed this technology spun out of Data61 into a start-up company, Emesent, which delivers efficiency, safety and operational insights directly to underground mining and other industries (read more at: Emesent).
Australia is in the midst of an energy transition.
Our energy use is changing. The way that people use, store and interact with energy is very different today, given changes in environmental conditions, advancements in technologies and socioeconomic situations.
Our energy research into low-emissions technologies, electricity grids and storage is guiding Australia towards a smart, secure and sustainable energy future. But a crucial component is understanding how Australians use energy.
Previously, paper surveys were posted to a subset of Australians to collect information about how they use energy in their homes. This was time-consuming and expensive, and receiving responses from large numbers of households was very limiting.
To broaden the survey scope, our social scientists and energy researchers developed a mobile app that could be downloaded and used by anyone at any time. This meant we could achieve a greater representation of Australian respondents in terms of geographic location, household type, form of dwelling, gender and age. The ingenuity of the CSIRO Energise app also allowed surveys to be sent out regularly to accumulate data from the same households and in real time.
In this time, more than 60 surveys were sent out, and more than 3,800 people downloaded and used the app. We received large amounts of data about how different types of people across the nation use energy.
The data includes energy consumption patterns, demographics, building characteristics, appliance uptake and more. We’re using this information to understand better the energy behaviours of Australians, which will help us to deliver more advanced energy science. The data has also been used in our National Energy Analytics and Research (NEAR) Program. NEAR collects, integrates and enhances information about Australia’s energy use and then informs decision-makers and the public through a tailored web platform.
Another major outcome of the CSIRO Energise project was the associated social science research – we found that many Australians are interested in contributing to a more secure, affordable and sustainable energy future. App users indicated that they wanted to complete the surveys because of a desire to help and contribute. These altruistic motivations helped to determine survey frequency and feedback mechanisms, and informed the app’s design and content. This in turned helped us to retain users. We also used the results to develop our communication and engagement strategies with our energy citizen scientists.
CSIRO's GISERA: delivering independent science
Ten years ago, the Queensland Government approved the third major coal seam gas (CSG) to liquefied natural development gas (LNG) proposal in the Surat Basin, giving the go-ahead for a major new resource export industry and jobs growth opportunity for Queensland and Australia. As major Australian and international companies accelerated the pace of drilling wells and constructing pipelines, gas processing facilities and LNG export terminals, new concerns emerged about a significant knowledge gap.
Communities and government were concerned the rapid pace of development outstripped the ability to understand and manage potential impacts on the environment, communities, resources such as water, and established industries such as agriculture.
At the same time, CSG industry proponents recognised that social acceptance for continued development was related to trust, and that trust was affected by the availability of independent, peer‑reviewed scientific studies into issues of concern to landholders and local communities.
Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA) was established in 2011 to meet this urgent need for independent, peer-reviewed and publicly available research into the social and environmental impacts of Queensland’s CSG industry.
Drawing on a combination of funding from CSIRO, industry and governments, over the past decade GISERA has used an innovative governance model to conduct more than 50 research projects costing around $36 million and involving hundreds of our scientists and research specialists.
The research focused on the impacts of onshore gas development in seven key areas of interest to local communities: surface and groundwater; agricultural land management; greenhouse gases and air quality; social and economic issues; health impacts; terrestrial biodiversity; and the marine environment.
The key to GISERA’s success is its governance model, which includes clear safeguards in the partner agreement around our ability to publish independent, peer-reviewed scientific research, and regional research advisory committees that determine where project funds are spent and are majority controlled by independent and community members.
This success is reflected in the Australian Government Productivity Commission Resources Sector Regulation report (draft, March 2020), which states that GISERA has made a ‘positive contribution by providing information and research that is conducted independently from the regulators and proponents of resources projects’.
From its original Queensland focus, GISERA is now a national organisation, with research projects underway in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory. We’ve partnered with Australia Pacific LNG, QGC, Santos, Origin Energy and Pangaea Resources. Plans are in place to begin research in Western Australia.
Protecting ecosystems from invasive weeds
Weeds pose a serious threat to biodiversity, agriculture, and human health and wellbeing. A series of cost-benefit analyses in 2006 revealed that for every dollar spent on biocontrol of weeds, agricultural industries and society benefited by $23.
Plants become weeds when they are introduced to a new country without natural enemies such as insects and disease-causing organisms like fungi and bacteria. This leads to their unchecked growth, which in turn affects the economic or ecological sustainability of an ecosystem.
Our scientists have been working on the biological control of weeds since the 1920s when they rid Australia of the prickly pear cactus by introducing an Argentinian moth. This is the practice of managing a weed by the deliberate use of one or more natural enemies (biocontrol agents) that suppress it.
In addition to managing invasive weeds in Australia, we also collaborate internationally to support scientific research and impact. For example, we’ve worked in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) for over 30 years to discover, evaluate and develop natural and sustainable biological control agents for invasive weeds that are endemic to Australia and Southeast Asia but invasive to the United States.
One of the significant impacts of this project was the discovery and development of Australian biological control agents, which are helping to manage the broad‑leaved paperbark tree (Melaleuca quinquenervia) in Florida.
This tree covered 490,000 hectares of South Florida, turning native sawgrass marshes into damaging swamps. It was also a major threat to the environmentally sensitive Florida Everglades.
Four biological control agents were released and three established on melaleuca in Florida. They decreased the growth and reproductive capacity of melaleuca and increased seedling mortality. In some sites, the native plant community recovered following the biological control of melaleuca. With integrated management including biological control, melaleuca now covers just a tenth of the Florida land it once did.
The control of melaleuca benefits ecotourism, sport fishing and hunting, agriculture, and ecosystems generally. For land managers, the major benefit is that biological control complements mechanical and chemical control by preventing regrowth following treatment.
Our partnership with USDA ARS has been extended to 2025, which will allow us to continue scientifically collaborating and sharing knowledge with the United States, Australia and research partners in the Asia-Pacific region. We’re aiming to deliver further scientific impact over the next five years in our novel approaches to managing invasive weeds.
We're bringing conservation into the innovation era
With Australia’s biodiversity in steep decline, our researchers are leading efforts to protect our precious species. We’re creating tools and technology to save millions of the world’s species that face extinction in the coming decades.
‘There isn’t enough money to preserve all the ‘at risk’ species,’ explained Dr iadine Chadès, one of our principal research scientists. ‘Sadly, we can’t protect everything.’
Our scientists are using Artificial intelligence (AI) and advances in data analysis to protect biodiversity. AI lets scientists do more with less by finding patterns and analysing complex data. Computer systems can assess millions of images, learning to recognise species. They can then monitor and count species from these images. AI can also provide recommendations for decision-makers.
We’re collaborating with the New South Wales Government’s Saving our Species program, using AI to optimally monitor and adaptively manage around 1,000 threatened species – a difficult endeavour due to the cryptic nature of threatened species. We’ve created a world-leading tool, which provides a single, integrated approach to identifying a priority set of projects that would secure as many species as possible.
In the Northern Territory, we’re using new technology to look after an ancient landscape. In Kakadu National Park, magpie geese, whose numbers have dwindled, are returning with the help of ethical AI and Indigenous knowledge. Magpie geese are a key indicator of ‘healthy country’ for Bininj Traditional Owners, who have hunted, fished and lived on this land for at least 65,000 years. But a weed called para grass is choking floodplains and the magpie geese’s habitat.
The challenge is immense: Kakadu National Park is one-third of the size of Tasmania. On the Nardab floodplains, Traditional Owners and Park rangers need to know the best way to control the weed – what combination of burning or spraying works best, and where priority areas of management should be – to focus these efforts.
Enter ethical AI. Our scientists are working with Bininj Traditional Owners, Rangers, Microsoft, Parks Australia, and the National Environmental Science Program to create new Indigenous-led technology. Rangers use drones to monitor geese and para grass. Aerial photos are analysed with help from AI, and results are displayed on an interactive Healthy Country Dashboard that we co-created using Bininj seasonal calendars to monitor and manage these wetlands.
‘We know it’s working because when we walk away, the rangers are still using the information collected from drones and on-ground monitoring to manage these wetlands,’ reflected principal research scientist Dr Cathy Robinson. There are already reports of results on the ground – the wetlands are flourishing, and thousands of magpie geese have come home to roost.
Benefit for the Basin
The Murray-Darling Basin is a national icon under stress in a changing climate.
Ensuring this Australian food bowl remains healthy and productive is vital for the communities, environment and industries relying on it. The Basin covers 14 per cent of Australia and is home to more than two million people. Its agriculture (both dryland and irrigated) accounts for almost 40 per cent by value of Australia’s agricultural production.
The Basin is in one of the world’s most variable climate regions, where catchment inflows in a wet year can be more than 20 times greater than the inflow in a dry year. It’s a system facing profound future challenges to adapt to a drier, hotter climate.
To better manage water under this likely future, we need to know the key climate drivers across the Basin, and how they’re likely to change due to global warming. We also need to understand where and when rains will fall, and what evaporation rates and water use can be expected.
We have delivered decades of world-leading research in the Basin. Water allocation and use in this important water resource is contentious, with many different water users and beneficiaries.
During average flow years there is tension around the various uses of water and through dry years, particularly in an extended drought, water allocation decisions are often contested. The challenges in the Basin also extend to the management of other natural assets beyond water.
The Basin is a complex social-ecological system facing many drivers of change, and an understanding of this is vital for informing its long-term management.
Acknowledging this complexity, we collaborate to provide the best scientific advice to those who depend on, or benefit from, the Basin.
Our lessons and scientific achievements from the Basin have been shared with water managers globally. We continue to provide science to support the best possible outcomes for communities, industries, and the Basin as a whole, now and into the future.
Fire-resistant panels for ships
CBG Systems is a Tasmanian manufacturer of insulation for aluminium hulled vessels such as ferries and catamarans. They came to us for ideas on how to expand their insulation into other maritime vessels and increase their market share – fortunately, we were already working on a project that could be used with CBG’s insulation to develop a new prototype.
Our Hybrid Inorganic Polymer System (HIPS) technology is a resin that acts as a ductile adhesive as well as a thermal protective coating within a composite system. The main application of the resin was intended as an adhesive, however HIPS can withstand temperatures of over 1000 degrees Celsius and remains stronger than fragile intumescent coatings generally used for fire protection under such conditions.
The HIPS technology was adapted to develop a multifunctional composite material that met marine fire protection regulations and achieved target weight reduction specifications. This new system became the basis of CBG’s next generation RAC Plus panels, meeting all the same standards of their previous insulation system with wider applications than before.
CBG Systems negotiated an ongoing license with us for the HIPS technology to manufacture their new insulation at scale. This has opened up an ongoing relationship with a local manufacturer using our technology in their products.
We helped CBG Systems secure two grants to support the adaption of the HIPS technology. A separate Accelerating Commercialisation grant was secured by CBG Systems to help fund a state‑of‑the-art manufacturing facility in Hobart. Our lead researcher worked to assist CBG Systems with the new manufacturing process using the HIPS technology, to ensure CBG Systems was ready to manufacture their new insulation at scale.
CBG Systems created six new manufacturing jobs as a result of their new facility. Global demand has already seen orders for CBG Systems received from Spain and Denmark.
CGB Systems’ collaboration with us has given a business with a 30-year history in insulation a new product range with wider application. Advanced manufacturing jobs have been created in Australia, and CBG Systems is exploring other applications for their new, co-developed insulation.
Foldax heart valve
The World Health Organisation estimates heart valve disease affects around 30 million people in the general population of industrialised countries.
Aortic valve disease is a congenital or age-related condition where the valve between the main pumping chamber of the heart and the body’s main artery stops functioning properly.
There are currently two popular valve replacement options. The first, and most commonly implanted, is a tissue valve that is obtained from animal tissue sources – most commonly from cows and pigs, but the manufacturing yields are low and struggle to meet demand.
The second is a mechanical valve, but these are not suitable for smaller people like children. Mechanical valves require lifelong drug treatments to prevent blood clotting and are prone to rejection.
We drew on our long history of polymer work – developing polymer bank notes, long‑term extended wear contact lenses, and other biomedical applications such as Elast-Eon™ used in cardiac pacemakers.
We used this experience to help United States’ manufacturer, Foldax, create their Tria heart valve out of our biopolymer material, LifePolymer™. The Tria heart valve is the first polymer option on the market, eliminating the use of animal tissue in the manufacturing process. The LifePolymer™ also removes the need for anti-blood clot medication and can work for decades without the risk of calcification.
The new Tria heart valve is designed to mimic the natural heart valve. This bridges the benefits of the natural function of the animal tissue heart valves with the scalability of manufacturing synthetic materials to meet demand.
Our partnership has enabled Foldax to produce the Tria heart valve and reach patients around the world.
The LifePolymer™ also has further applications beyond heart valves. Other potential uses are being explored, such as a coating for stents, vascular grafts, and synthetic membranes for ear drum ruptures.
In June, MedTech Breakthrough, an independent market intelligence organisation that recognises top companies, technologies and products in the global health and medical technology market, selected the heart valve technology as the winner of its Medical Device Engineering Breakthrough Award.
Navigating the underground with ExScan
Underground mines, particularly coal mines, are inherently high-risk environments. Methane gas, which naturally seeps from coal seams, is volatile and highly explosive, presenting a major hazard to workers’ health and safety and mine productivity.
As a single spark can ignite an explosion, any equipment used in underground coal mines must be certified as safe for that environment.
Building upon the global success of our LASC longwall automation technology, we invented ExScan, a laser-scanning system that provides real‑time data for enhanced navigation and 3D mapping capability in underground mines.
Designed specifically for use in explosion risk zones, the ExScan laser-scanning hardware and electronics are housed within a novel explosion‑proof casing, certified to international standards for use in hazardous underground environments. Any spark that could ever arise from the electronics has no way of contacting the potentially volatile mine environment to ignite an explosion. Inside this container, the patented ExScan system includes a powerful sensing platform that can be deployed in remote and automated mining applications.
The laser scanner and associated software can generate real‑time 3D maps of tunnels, walls and cavities underground, where the Global Positioning System (GPS) does not penetrate.
The 3D maps ExScan creates can then be used for locating, steering and navigating equipment and vehicles.
The scanners can be mounted in any orientation, even upside down and on moving machinery and vehicles, which means they can be used to map whole mines, and potentially for vehicle navigation.
This year, Glencore, one of the world’s largest mining companies, used ExScan to successfully resolve coal flow blockages on the conveyor system under the coal shearing equipment at its Oaky Creek North Mine in Central Queensland.
The real-time 3D mapping capability of ExScan visualised the issues and helped align and steer the shearer equipment, ensuring workers were kept safe and mine productivity was preserved.
Glencore now has over 60 ExScan units in use underground. The technology is currently being used in six Australian mines and has attracted significant global interest, particularly from the Chinese coal industry.
ExScan is transforming underground working. It’s providing a pathway to mining equipment automation, removing workers from the dangers of the coal face, and allowing longwall operations to be managed remotely from a control centre safely above the ground.
Disruptive gold analysis technology from Chrysos expands into Kalgoorlie goldfields
Analytical services – worth more than $1 billion globally – are an essential part of the mining value chain, from exploring for new deposits through to running profitable extraction operations.
In an industry facing declining ore grades, rapid analytical technology has the potential to unlock substantial productivity gains in gold mining and production and open up a significant new market for real-time analysis services in onsite applications.
For example, gold processing plants may only recover between 65–85 per cent of gold present in mined rock. With some plants producing around $1 billion of gold each year, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gold may be going to waste. Even a modest five per cent improvement in recovery would be worth around half a billion dollars annually to the industry.
We developed an automated solution that offers mineral analysis data in minutes. It is a reliable alternative to traditional chemical analysis methods, which can take days to deliver results.
The technique – based on gamma activation analysis – uses high powered x-rays to bombard rock samples and activate atoms of gold and other metals. A highly sensitive detector then picks up the unique atomic signatures from these elements to determine their concentrations.
In 2016, we partnered with a network of experienced investors and industry professionals to form Chrysos Corporation Limited (Chrysos) to quickly bring the technology to market.
Now trademarked as Chrysos PhotonAssay, the solution offers a rapid alternative to the conventional, 500-year-old fire assay technique, which involves sending samples off to a central laboratory, where they are heated up to 1200 degrees Celsius and generally destroyed.
Chrysos PhotonAssay is non-destructive and can deliver results in just a few minutes without generating any of the toxic waste products that are problematic in other assay systems. The technology provides an innovative solution to drive better and faster decision-making across the value chain.
Major mining services company Perenti (formerly Ausdrill) became the first to adopt the technology, offering Chrysos PhotonAssay at its MinAnalytical laboratory in Perth from mid-2018.
Chrysos’ plans to bring the solution closer to mine sites for near real-time turnaround on assay results is now reaching fruition. In 2019, two more Chrysos PhotonAssay systems were commissioned in the MinAnalytical laboratories in the Kalgoorlie goldfield. MinAnalytical also reported that they are looking to roll out more units in Western Australia with an agreement that will see the drilling firm take on six additional machines over the next three years.
Research to support local community and managers of a World-Heritage-listed coral reef
The Ningaloo Coast hosts one of the world’s longest and most extensive fringing coral reef systems, along with globally significant abundances of large megafauna, like whale sharks. Its uniqueness led to inscription on the World Heritage list, and in recent years, Ningaloo has attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists, who bring tens of millions of dollars of revenue to the region. But Ningaloo’s ecosystems, and their ability to support the tourism industry, are being challenged by pressures like global climate change, as well as ever-increasing human use. Successful navigation through these challenges relies on sound science to identify the pressures, the changes they create and the ways that we can mitigate them.
Ningaloo Outlook was a strategic five-year $5.4 million partnership with BHP, which involved a program of research to increase the understanding of Ningaloo’s reefs and iconic megafauna.
Ningaloo Outlook also supported a PhD scholarship program and involved active participation by the remote community of Exmouth, including the local school. With school teachers, the team integrated real-world science into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum through engaging, hands-on activities that reached over 450 students. The partnership has demonstrated the relevance of STEM careers and teachers have reported increased uptake in year 11 and 12 STEM subjects.
Surveys of deep reefs used autonomous underwater vehicles, together with experimental deployments of artificial substrates, to measure where and when coral larvae arrive and grow into juveniles. The research revealed clear patterns in the arrangement of the biota living on the seafloor, which remained consistent from year to year, as well as unique biodiversity, such as exceptionally high numbers of mushroom corals in one ‘Goldilocks Zone’. Companion surveys of shallow reefs extended one of the Australia’s longest coral reef datasets (2006–19) and revealed that Ningaloo’s northern coral reefs are in relatively good condition – although there has been some localised coral decline caused by heatwaves and cyclones. The surveys also highlighted that the amount of marine debris (including plastics) is very low.
Megafauna tagged by Ningaloo Outlook researchers provided insights like the extensive movement of whale sharks, with tagged individuals transmitting from places as far afield as the Gulf of Carpentaria, Christmas Island and south-western Australia. The diving patterns yielded by recovered tags have allowed estimates of their risk to ship strikes – research that is informing how industry can adapt their practices to minimise this risk. Innovative use of a portable ultrasound demonstrated that turtles resident at Ningaloo tend to nest elsewhere. In contrast, turtles that nest at Ningaloo arrive from an area extending from Shark Bay to the Kimberley.
Ningaloo Outlook has provided vital information on the trends and condition of the region’s natural assets, as well as insights into the movements of megafauna to and from Ningaloo. This information is provided to government and industry, as well as the broader community, who together will make critical decisions that affect Ningaloo in the future.
Climate-proofing the Northern Territory mango industry
Mango growers in the Northern Territory have new information to use when planning for the future thanks to an initiative of the National Environmental Science Program’s Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub, which we host.
Mangoes are the Northern Territory’s largest horticultural product. In 2018–19, nearly half of the national crop, which was worth $199 million, was produced in the Territory. Harvest timing and yield is closely linked to the initiation of mango flowering, which can be promoted by low night-time temperatures and inhibited by high day-time temperatures. Temperatures have already increased by around one degree Celsius since 1910 and could warm by up to around five degrees Celsius by the end of the century.3 Understanding when the critical temperature thresholds are crossed for different cultivars is important information for growers – particularly those looking to invest in new plantings – and for the industry.
Working with the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Resources, we combined projections of the future climate with what we know about the response of different mango cultivars to these temperature thresholds. Researchers were able to determine when the thresholds for six different mango varieties would be crossed in 12 growing regions across the Northern Territory and in Kununurra, Western Australia. As the century progresses under a high emissions scenario, some cultivars will be drastically impacted, with growing areas around Darwin particularly vulnerable to change.
While there are other factors to consider with regards to climate change and the sustainability of the mango industry in the Northern Territory, the results of this assessment flag that there may need to be significant changes for growers and the industry to maintain sustainable production in the future.
With these results, growers can identify appropriate on-farm adaptation responses that will serve to ensure continued production and viability. Adaptation options could include canopy management, transitioning cultivars, relocating orchards or orchard cooling. On a larger scale, the mango industry can identify ways to support growers to take the necessary responses and to ensure the strong mango market is maintained.
The success of this science was made possible through collaboration facilitated by the Hub, which has a focus on making climate change science accessible. The methodology underpinning the Hub’s science engagement ensures that climate change data and information delivered to stakeholders is useful and used. As demonstrated in this project, the Hub’s stakeholder engagement-driven activities have proven to be an effective way to deliver impact from our science.
CannPal Animal Therapeutics
CannPal Animal Therapeutics (CannPal) is an ASX-listed animal health company that develops evidence-based, plant-derived therapeutic products to promote better health and wellbeing for companion animals. With the emergence of an ageing pet population, and associated age-related diseases, there is little in the way of new and natural therapeutics to help provide relief for conditions such as osteoarthritis. Current treatments are often dated or repurposed human drugs, which can come with many undesirable side effects in animals.
CannPal identified a gap in the market for natural, plant-derived animal therapies that are safe and effective for promoting better health and wellbeing for companion animals, focusing on compounds derived from cannabis.
Plant-derived active ingredients are very sensitive to light, air and stomach acids. By the time they have been extracted from the plant and processed into a delivery format suitable for pets, most of the bioactive compounds have started to degrade. CannPal engaged our researchers to help progress a new plant-derived joint health formulated product for dogs into a more suitable format. The project aimed to improve the stability of the formulation and to ease its incorporation into a therapeutic pet supplement. This would ideally result in a newly formulated therapeutic product for dogs, to promote better absorption and efficacy with improved bioavailability.
Our scientists at the Werribee Food Innovation Centre used their patented microencapsulation technology MicroMAX®, originally developed for stabilising omega-3 fatty acids and other bioactives in food products. This provides oxidative stability and an enhanced delivery of active ingredients to the gastrointestinal tract, often resulting in greater shelf life for products. Our scientists investigated the optimum formulation and processing conditions to convert CannPal’s formulation into a stable powdered ingredient with MicroMAX®.
Initial research was facilitated and co-funded through CSIRO Kick-Start, which helps start-ups and SMEs to access our research and development opportunities. Since the project concluded, CannPal has continued to work with us to optimise and scale-up the process and entered into a licensing agreement with us for use of our MicroMAX® technology.
Making an impact in partnership with Indigenous communities across Australia
Since 2014, we have delivered the Indigenous STEM Education Program with funding from the BHP Foundation. The program lifts Australia’s science capacity and capability by demonstrating how we value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their extensive scientific and cultural knowledge. We recognise that Indigenous peoples are Australia’s first and continuing scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.
The program’s impact has been rapid. In just five years, it has increased student engagement and academic results particularly among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and low‑achieving, non-Indigenous students taking part in inquiry programs based on Indigenous STEM knowledge (44 per cent and 59 per cent of these students improved their academic achievement respectively). The program has increased teacher capacity – including embedding a two-way science practice that engages students in classroom and on‑country learning activities. It has increased the likelihood of STEM careers: for Year 10 Indigenous students attending the Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science, 74 per cent now plan to have a STEM career (up from 51 per cent before attending summer school).
We also developed resources to support current and future Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and communities. Two-Way Science: An Integrated Learning Program for Aboriginal Desert Schools connects the cultural knowledge of the local community with western science and the Australian curriculum.
Our monitoring and program evaluation reported increases in student engagement, academic achievement and community capability. Students have also reported improved confidence, aspiration and setting goals for higher education and future careers, particularly in STEM. For some participants the program has changed their lives.
Since 2015, the program has engaged over 21,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, 1,441 teachers and assistant teachers, and worked with 181 schools in metropolitan, regional and remote communities in each state and territory. As a strength-based program, we use community partnerships as a core structure for the co-design of our curriculum and student programs. The program is a national leader in delivering an Indigenous STEM curriculum and Indigenous STEM student career development and support.
Diseases don't respect borders
The Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP), formerly the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, has long played an important role to help safeguard Australia and our region from diseases affecting animals and people.
The social and economic impacts of disease outbreaks can be devastating, as we’ve seen from the outbreak of COVID-19. In the case of African swine fever, in countries with small-holder pig farming, livelihoods may be destroyed. If Australia has an outbreak, industry experts predict African swine fever could cost our economy $50 billion, putting thousands of jobs at risk. To prevent diseases like African swine fever spreading to Australia, ACDP is building biosecurity capacity with our south-east Asian neighbours.
Our international programs provide training to improve disease diagnosis and emergency outbreak response. We provide technical laboratory support, applied research, collaborative surveillance activities and proficiency testing programs. Proficiency testing, sometimes known as external quality assessment, is used to examine lab processes and determine the level of accuracy that participant laboratories can achieve when conducting diagnostic tests.
The programs strengthen the capability of the diagnostic services within participating countries and contribute to early disease detection, particularly diseases of zoonotic and economic relevance to the region. These are complemented by backstopping missions, where our scientists travel to participating laboratories to discuss proficiency testing results, provide technical advice, assess diagnostic laboratory spaces and practices, and advise on biosafety, quality assurance and documentation systems. These missions are critical to assist, advise and troubleshoot identified problems that global partnering labs may be having, and build trust and confidence between laboratories and scientists.
Proficiency testing participation is growing across terrestrial and aquatic diseases. Last year, the program included 87 laboratories across 30 countries, an increase from 29 laboratories across 14 countries in 2016.
Regional laboratories are providing growing investment in these projects, which ensure that diagnostic results obtained throughout the Asia-Pacific region can be reliably used by governments and biosafety councils to appropriately resource and manage biosecurity risks nationally and internationally.
Through improved threat assessment and virus management, our support reduces the risk of diseases circulating in our neighbouring countries, and as a result, assists Australia’s pre border biosecurity.
Celebrating 50 years since Apollo 11
On 21 July 1969 (Australian Eastern Standard Time), humankind made ‘one giant leap’ by taking its first steps on the Moon. Australia played an important role in helping the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) share the technological feat with 600 million people around the world, cementing our nation’s place in one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
Television signals from the Moon were received by NASA’s tracking stations at Goldstone in California and Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra, and our own Parkes radio telescope. At first, NASA switched between signals received by Goldstone and Honeysuckle Creek, the latter capturing the first footstep on the Moon. Eight minutes and 51 seconds into the broadcast the NASA controller selected signals coming from Parkes and stayed with them for the next two-and a-half-hours.
In 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, we honoured the Australians who took part, engaged people in the current work of the local space sector, and inspired future generations of STEM students.
We held open days at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, which we operate for NASA and where the Honeysuckle Creek antenna now resides, and at our Parkes radio telescope. Together, these events attracted 24,000 people including the United States Ambassador to Australia, the Deputy Prime Minister, our Minister and other key stakeholders.
We created an immersive virtual reality experience at the CSIRO Discovery Centre in Canberra, many sponsored Apollo 11 exhibitions at Questacon and the Powerhouse Museum, and collaborated with Geoscience Australia on the Canberra ‘Moon Rock’ trail.
We worked closely with the new Australian Space Agency and the US Embassy in Australia, with the Royal Australian Mint on the packaging and promotion of commemorative coins, the National Film and Sound Archive on a donation of the only official copy of the Apollo 11 Moon landing footage held outside the US, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on sharing information with Australia’s diplomatic offices overseas.
Our communication campaign reached and inspired millions of people by working with Australia’s leading metropolitan and regional media groups: News Corp, Australian Community Media and the ABC. We also hosted a media briefing on Apollo 11 and the future of Australia’s space industry with the Australian Science Media Centre. News coverage mentioning CSIRO reached a combined audience of 55.5 million people in Australia.
Epic ocean voyage to extend Australia's maritime territory
In January, research vessel Investigator departed Perth for a two-month voyage to push the boundaries of vessel endurance and Australia’s marine jurisdiction. On board was an international science team of 57 people including researchers from 13 institutions and 11 countries: Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Poland, Singapore, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Led by Professor Mike Coffin from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, the main objective of the voyage was to acquire data and samples to establish whether a region of seafloor the size of Switzerland qualifies to be included in Australia’s marine territory.
By voyage end, the team had mapped more than 100,000 square kilometres of seafloor, much of it for the first time, and set new endurance records for both vessel distance travelled (10,077 nautical miles) and days at sea (57 days).
The voyage set out to increase our understanding of the ancient rifting, break-up and separation of tectonic plates in the Indian Ocean that split a giant oceanic plateau into two major seafloor features: Broken Ridge and the Kerguelen Plateau. These features are now over 2,700 kilometres apart after separating around 43 million years ago.
Previously, the geological origin of William’s Ridge, a seafloor feature adjacent to the Kerguelen Plateau (which includes Australia’s Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands), was considered unresolved and had not been included as part of Australia’s marine territory.
In addition to mapping the seafloor in this region, researchers acquired sub-bottom profile, gravity and magnetics data. They also collected critical seismic reflection data using Investigator’s new multichannel seismic reflection system, which images sub‑seafloor structure and stratigraphy. This small-scale, high‑resolution system was funded by Geoscience Australia and commissioned immediately prior to the voyage, adding a valuable additional scientific capability for use by Australia’s marine research community.
The entire length of William’s Ridge was mapped, defining both its continuity with the Kerguelen Plateau and its south-eastern limit for the first time. This information, along with results from post-voyage analyses of the rock samples that were collected, will be used to address criteria for a future submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
If judged eligible, it could add 40,000 square kilometres to the continental shelf recognised as part of Australia’s marine territory.
The voyage also demonstrated the Marine National Facility’s ongoing commitment to training Australia’s next generation of marine researchers. Sixteen students from five Australian universities participated, including the youngest ever voyage participant at 19 years old. The benefits of the experience and mentoring received by students during these voyages is long-lasting and a critical investment for Australia’s future marine industries.
Developing saltwater scientists
For research vessel Investigator’s final voyage of 2019, we launched the Indigenous Time at Sea Scholarship (ITSS), a new program to increase opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to lead and participate in sea country and marine research.
It reflects our commitment to increase involvement and opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within the organisation and in scientific research.
For the participants, it provides practical at-sea experience and connects them with experienced researchers and other like-minded students. It also creates a community for collaborating and sharing scientific and cultural knowledge and experience.
The inaugural ITSS 10-day voyage travelled in December from Darwin, Northern Territory, to Fremantle, Western Australia, and was led by Chief Scientist, Dr Alain Protat, from the Bureau of Meteorology.
The first two participants of the scholarship program were Tiahni Adamson from the University of Adelaide, who has connections to Thursday Island and Larrakia country, and Sophie Gilbey, a proud Alyawarr woman from Flinders University. Program coordinator, Hannah McCleary, who is a proud Palawa woman, a student at the University of Tasmania, and the first Indigenous Cadet at the Marine National Facility, joined the students on the journey.
Tiahni and Sophie participated in a range of voyage research as the vessel travelled along Australia’s west coast. They helped to manage the Continuous Plankton Recorder deployment program, studied the atmosphere and weather with the Bureau of Meteorology, investigated microplastics in the ocean, and conducted seabird and marine mammal surveys.
‘I confirmed my deep love for marine sciences and being at sea, and how important it is to work in a field that I am deeply passionate about,’ Tiahni said. ‘After I finished the scholarship program, I received a two-year, full-time traineeship at Primary Industries and Regions South Australia as a Fisheries Compliance Officer.’
‘I was invited to present at a Caring for Country symposium, something I never would have considered or have had the confidence to do before,’ Sophie said. ‘The ITSS program gave me that opportunity and I’m extremely grateful.’
‘These experiences have changed my life and my future for the better,’ Hannah said. ‘They’ve made a deep impact on my cultural appreciation and understanding, my love of learning, and have shown me the power of knowledge. I’ve met brothers and sisters from across Australia, been introduced to the diversity of study within science and other educational disciplines, and now I’m helping to provide these opportunities for other students just like me.’
The ITSS program will run annually and is open to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolled in an undergraduate or postgraduate degree at an Australian university.
Improving chronic pain relief treatment
One in five Australians lives with chronic pain, which is routinely felt in the absence of an external stimulus. To provide effective relief, researchers are now turning to neurotoxins produced by venomous animals to develop alternative treatments.
Researchers from RMIT University are investigating the toxins found in marine cone snails Conus regius and Conus aulicus for pain relief. The challenge is to modify the toxins’ peptide structures and tune how strongly they attach to a range of different receptors in the nervous system so that they attach only to very specific targets. If their binding is selective to only a specific pain receptor, their action can be controlled to achieve pain relief without toxic side effects.
This chemical modification and fine-tuning require an understanding of exactly how the ‘molecular handshake’ occurs between the peptides and various receptors in the nervous system.
Using the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre’s systems, the researchers are running molecular models and simulations to identify the specific binding interactions that define the handshake between the conotoxin peptides and their known receptor targets.
Models of the peptide and receptor in the cell membrane, along with the surrounding water molecules and ions, are created and then molecular dynamics simulations are run to explore how they move and interact. A typical model contains about 300,000 atoms, and atomic movements are tracked for hundreds to thousands of nanoseconds to replicate the interactions that are likely to happen in nature. Supercomputing facilities are essential to managing the extremely large number of computations involved in exploring the full range of molecular movements.
By understanding the binding mechanism through simulation, the RMIT team is optimising structural modifications for more selective or stronger binding. These results are shared with researchers at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, who create and test promising peptide variants to measure the strength and selectivity of their action. Their real-life results confirm the most promising variations to explore further in the next round of molecular modelling.
This iterative approach is creating novel conotoxin peptides with characteristics more suitable for therapeutic testing, with a stable oral analgesic for chronic pain the goal.
Using bees and honey to monitor environmental change
Climate change, bushfires and loss of habitat are threatening the survival of many plant species. Detecting and monitoring changes to vegetation is important for long-term conservation of individual threatened species and entire ecosystems.
Traditional plant biomonitoring programs are time‑consuming and costly, requiring trained staff to carry out extensive field surveys. An alternative is to use pollinating insects for biomonitoring. Pollinators like European honey bees (Apis mellifera) are experts at surveying flowering plants. When they visit plants to collect pollen and nectar, they bring DNA evidence of neighbouring plant communities back to their hives. We can easily collect these DNA records from a range of sources, including bees, pollen traps and honey.
DNA metabarcoding is a high-throughput genomic method that enables fast, accurate identification of species from environmental samples, including pollen or honey.
Species identifications are based on expertly identified plant specimens in reference collections, including the Australian National Herbarium, which houses more than one million plant specimens. Reference collections are a vital resource for future research and for understanding our biodiversity. They provide the data for ground truthing large scale biomonitoring programs.
Through the Environomics Future Science Platform, we have compared the use of pollen DNA metabarcoding to survey flowering plants with the results from a traditional field survey (read more at Our investment in emerging areas of science).
The Australian Capital Territory Beekeepers Association manages hives of European honeybees at Jerrabomberra Wetlands, an urban reserve in Canberra. We carried out a field survey at this site and identified 44 plant species. With the assistance of beekeepers, we then used bees to survey the flowering plant species present.
We tested three different pollen DNA sampling methods, including catching individual bees, setting up pollen traps, and collecting honey directly from hives. Using pollen DNA metabarcoding we detected 133 plant species from the combined sampling methods. Honey was the best source of species information, followed by pollen traps and individual bees.
We are now using this new technology to monitor changes to vegetation in highly threatened areas such as Kosciuszko National Park, where a unique alpine plant community occurs.
We are also using the Australian National Herbarium collection to identify and generate DNA barcodes for rare and endemic Australian species. This will expand the potential for pollen DNA metabarcoding to be deployed to monitor rare native plant species in large areas of national parks and nature reserves.
Quality data key to improving biodiversity
Global collaboration is key to improving the quality of data in our national biodiversity database, the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), and we’ve joined forces with global social platform, iNaturalist.
The ALA holds over 87 million biodiversity occurrence records from national collections, research organisations, government agencies, community groups and individual citizen observations. Open access to such a large and comprehensive dataset helps to create a detailed picture of Australia’s biodiversity and enables scientists, policy makers, land managers, and industry to work more efficiently.
iNaturalist is one of the world’s most popular nature apps for recording and identifying species observation. We have become a member of the global iNaturalist network and launched the localised gateway, iNaturalist Australia, in October. The Australian iNaturalist community has over 200,000 observers and 8,700 identifiers who have collectively contributed over one million observations.
The key to iNaturalist’s success is the unique combination of a passionate community and stateof- the-art machine learning technology to help people with species identification. Novice naturalists who need help with species identification benefit from iNaturalist’s image recognition software and the expertise of the community – within hours of uploading an image, a novice can receive confirmation on species identification. People with expertise in a particular taxon can help identify observations, share their expertise and contribute to a global conversation. This drives two outcomes: connecting people with nature and producing scientifically valid data.
Open data policy reaps benefits for all kinds of scientific biodiversity research – taxonomy, ecology and artificial intelligence. Open source software development facilitates innovation and infrastructure sustainability.
iNaturalist Australia has benefited Australia – it’s improved the quality of our national biodiversity data and encouraged greater participation in biodiversity science. During the recent bushfire season, iNaturalist was used by research groups, including the University of New South Wales Centre for Ecosystem Science, to help collect data on species recovery after bushfire.
Our collaborations with large international networks like iNaturalist, the Living Atlases and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility are based on a shared approach to open source software and open data policy. These offer us the benefits of knowledge sharing and risk mitigation across all our platforms and communities.
One of the greatest mysteries occupying astronomers is what causes fast radio bursts. These massive bursts of energy – each equivalent to more energy than our Sun emits in 80 years – last just milliseconds. International research teams are now racing to uncover what causes these brief and powerful events, which were first discovered in 2007 in archival data collected by our Parkes radio telescope.
Our new ASKAP radio telescope, part of the Australia Telescope National Facility, is being used to survey the skies for these transient phenomena.
To aid this search our engineers developed a customised instrument that can record the telescope’s data stream when a burst is detected. This can be used to determine the burst’s origin with high precision. An Australian-led team including astronomers from CSIRO, Swinburne University of Technology and the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research has now used ASKAP to locate the origin of six bursts to their home galaxies.
This year, having pinpointed the location of the bursts, the team used instruments including our Australia Telescope Compact Array and other international telescopes to zoom in on the precise locations of the bursts. This revealed that bursts came from the outskirts of their home galaxies, ruling out supermassive black holes and several more extreme theories to explain their origins.
While we don’t yet know what causes fast radio bursts, the ability to study a large number and determine their exact location is a big leap towards solving this mystery.