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Educating Farmers About Animal Diseases With Augmented Reality

The red meat and livestock industry contributes more than $18 billion a year (or about 1.4 percent) of the gross domestic product in Australia and employs directly and indirectly almost half a million people.

“An outbreak of a disease such as foot and mouth would be devastating for our producers,” says Emily Mellor, who leads the Red Meat and Wool Growth Program at the Department of Primary Industries and Regions South Australia (PIRSA). “We’d be shut out of our export markets straight away and it would also have a huge impact on the domestic market.”

In fact, a widespread outbreak would cause economic losses of around $80 billion over 10 years, including flow-on effects through the agricultural supply chain, and on farming communities, hospitality and tourism, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.

Traditional methods of educating primary producers about emergency animal diseases relied on static photos and textbook descriptions in brochures or presentations. But they didn’t have many cuts through with farmers.

“They weren’t encouraging farmers to have those really important discussions about biosecurity planning on their farms and emergency animal disease preparedness,” Mellor says. “Also, it’s difficult for producers to identify the signs and symptoms when they’ve never seen these diseases face-to-face. Not just foot and mouth but some of the more exotic diseases we’ve never seen in this country”.

“Most farmers are visual learners. Death by PowerPoint is not the best way to engage them. We looked at augmented reality as something that would bring the problem into their own environment.”

In October 2021, they started developing the Sheep Emergency Animal Disease AR Tool. It allows farmers to view a small flock of 3D digital sheep using a Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headset or a smartphone or tablet. The educational tool realistically depicts the visual symptoms of foot and mouth and other emergency animal diseases. Farmers identify the sheep they think is sick and then identify the symptoms it is presenting, like foot and mouth lesions and lameness. The tool delivers feedback and pop-up hints to help them.

Recognizing that the tool would be used on remote properties that may have limited connectivity, it was designed with an offline mode.

The augmented reality solution lets producers view the digital flock of sheep in situ, either in the yards or a paddock and even in their home or office! They can also walk through the flock like they were inspecting real sheep. It is much better than just looking at pictures.

From farmers to teachers to government ministers, everyone who has used the app in a HoloLens headset has been impressed with its capabilities and ease of use.

Mellor sees the augmented reality tool as a powerful way to reach a new generation of primary producers who are more switched on to technology.

“People think these big words like augmented reality and virtual reality mean they’re very expensive ways of doing things, but it wasn’t the case for us and certainly not when compared to the benefits we can get from these types of tools,” she says.

“This brings a level of excitement to talking about biosecurity and emergency animal disease preparedness. It’s great to have this option for us to get important messages out there.”

Future iterations of the tool could change everything, even more than it is now, it could include a collaborative model where two people can view the same content, even if they are in different locations, or beaming in remote assistance from Vets.

As time pass, even more industries are introducing these technologies into their training processes. It is shown that workers are more likely to learn faster than in a traditional classroom. So, what are you waiting for to reduce time and costs?

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