Australia has a problem.
When normal conditions resume, the number of international travellers and cargo coming into the country is predicted to dramatically increase over the coming decades. Great for tourism and trade in the long term. But with more movement of people and goods comes an increased biosecurity threat – exotic pests and diseases hitchhiking to the Land Down Under.
The government simply won’t have the human resources to check everything coming into the country.
So, a small team in the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment banded together to come up with a technological solution that’s not only addressing this issue but is also an award-winning, world-first innovation!
Director, Jessica Mitchell knew that a solution to this biosecurity issue was out there…but where?
After scouring the globe, Jessica’s team found the answer in a different sector altogether – aviation security.
The resulting solution – 3D x-ray technology and accompanying auto-detection algorithms – were the product of a successful collaboration of the public and private sectors with altruistic motives.
Australia and New Zealand are world leaders in biosecurity, so it was a no-brainer to team up to find a solution together. But they also needed a technical partner who understood the complexity of the issue and who was willing to experiment. Rapiscan Systems fit the bill.
Jessica and her team pitched to the department’s executive the idea of converting aviation security screening technology to fit biosecurity.
The aviation industry uses algorithms that read CT-scanned images to find items of security concern, like explosives, but biosecurity requires screening for hundreds of different organic products which could harbour pests and diseases.
‘It was only ever pitched as a proof of concept,’ says team member Emily Ward. ‘We didn’t know if it would work.
We had to be realistic. And we also had to manage the expectations of our senior executive.’
They secured seed funding to experiment.
‘The initial contract was only ever to test if the algorithms could be created,’ says fellow team member Mick Young.
‘We started with an apple because we figured that if we couldn’t identify an apple, then it was all over!’ laughs Mick.
This first algorithm worked and they developed it further to detect a whole range of fruit. And they continued to create more algorithms to find meat and seafood.
Like all successful innovation, this pilot also came with challenges and lessons.
‘We’ve found we’re not able to screen for seeds using this tech because they’re simply too small,’ says Mick. ‘So we’re already working on another solution.’
The size and weight of the 3D x-ray machine also proved a significant test.
‘It weighs 7 tonnes and comes in 3 huge pieces, and not many airport mezzanines can cope with this,’ says Mick. ‘To install it at Melbourne Airport, we had to engage a civil engineering company to take down a huge glass wall in the middle of the night and replace it before the travellers started arriving at 6 am.’
Getting buy-in from the x-ray operators and training them how to use the machines was vital and potentially tricky.
‘Staff were familiar with 2D x-ray machines and this is very different so they needed new training,’ says Melbourne-based team member John O’Brien.
‘This was a pilot and we needed local staff who were willing to give it a go and who could then provide feedback and advocate for the new technology. We didn’t want them to feel threatened by the new tech but to see the advantages. I came on board to make this happen.’
The pilot has been successful. Initial testing indicates that the new tech can detect 2-5 times more material than the traditional 2D x-ray. And out of this project, Rapiscan Systems created a new interface platform that may become their future flagship product.
All the parties agreed to provide the technology on an open source platform because it benefits everyone.
‘We figure that the more countries that use this technology, the better it is for everyone,’ says Mick. ‘If other countries can pre-clear cargo before it comes to Australia, then that’s great for them and for us.’
The team says that this whole project got off the ground because their executive were willing to take a risk and fail, as long as valuable lessons were learned.
The team were confident in themselves, and built their innovation capital over time, but they also knew their own limits and they filled in the gaps with competent partners.
‘Honest, open and regular communication with all stakeholders was also important,’ says Mick. ‘We didn’t hide anything and we brought everyone on the journey with us.’
In Australia, the future involves installing more machines in airports as well as international mail and cargo facilities. And also creating more algorithms, including vegetables, plants and illegal wildlife, so our residents and international travellers can continue to enjoy our unspoilt environment and Australia can continue to trade.
The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work. PSIN ceased on 8 January 2021.
See more PSIN resources or read about PSIN on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.