By Tess Macallan, Journalist, Council Magazine

Australia’s climate is rapidly changing, giving rise to a significant amount of uncertainty among communities. For local governments, smart environmental monitoring technology presents an opportunity to gain deeper insights into environmental impacts. For more than a decade, the City of Townsville has been developing locally-made environmental sensors to better understand how changing weather conditions can impact the community.

As Australia’s largest tropical city, Townsville is renowned for its stunning coastal landscapes and is a popular destination for travellers. While the region’s climate is characterised by variation, rising temperatures are causing shifts in this natural variability. This will likely influence rainfall changes in the coming decades, with heavy rainfall and intense storm events expected to increase.

To support the city to grow sustainably, and gather data as it does so, the City of Townsville has been developing environmental sensors to capture micro-climate data. Deployed in different natural and urban environments across the city, the solar-powered and non-intrusive sensors can collect environmental data of small-scale changes that are normally invisible to humans, as well as major weather events like heat waves, floods and cyclones.

As part of the Queensland Government’s North Queensland Disaster Mitigation Program, the City has received $125,000 in funding from the Queensland Reconstruction Authority to deploy the technology.

Townsville-made smart tech

Townsville City Council Community Health, Safety and Environmental Sustainability Committee chairperson, Maurie Soars, said Council has been working with Townsville-based start-up and innovator, LiXiA, to build and industrialise the environmental sensors.

“Council has been developing sensors for the past ten years, working in a variety of landscapes and environments where sensor data can be collected, stored and distributed wirelessly from otherwise remote and difficult to access locations.

“These locally made sensors can measure everything from temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure and solar irradiance to rainfall, water height, water quality, and the tilt and vibration that trees feel in the wind. “Our sensor research, development and deployment of tropicalised lower cost sensors has involved integrating and developing all aspects of data relationships from collection to distribution and secure management.

“We have developed a long-range, low energy and packet data system that is designed to be lower maintenance and cost less to implement, while generating near-real time data. We utilise a LoRaWAN network for transmission of data.” Funding from the Queensland Government will be used to manufacture and implement 60 overland flow path sensors and 40 rainfall buckets.

Rising climate adversity

The climate is changing quickly, with rapid shifts in precipitation patterns, extreme weather events and disrupted ecosystems creating uncertainty. The impacts are difficult to predict, with the effects varying widely at regional and local levels.

With this level of uncertainty, it’s important for all levels of government and communities to adopt strategies that consider a range of potential impacts, embrace adaptive approaches and prioritise sustainable practices to minimise the negative effects of climate change.

Australia has already experienced increases in average temperatures over the past 60 years, with more frequent hot weather, fewer cold days, shifting rainfall patterns and rising sea levels. This trajectory is expected to continue, and it is also expected that extreme rainfall will increase, likely resulting in more devastating flood events.

Coastal cities like Townsville are vulnerable to erosion and infrastructure damage which can increase maintenance costs, disrupt essential services and result in a surge of energy and water usage. Climate change also poses a threat to tourism. For governments, this will mean a greater need for emergency planning, educating travellers on conditions and preparing for changing seasonal demand.

Building resilience

Local governments across the country will face their own climate challenges, putting increased pressure on budgets, and underscoring the need for proactive and sustainable solutions.

Sensors offer a range of benefits for environmental monitoring including, but not limited to:

  • Real-time and accurate data to identify and prevent environmental issues
  • Reduction of costs associated with manual data collection and analysis
  • Widespread remote monitoring of large and difficult to access areas
  • Identification of natural and climate change-related disasters and deforestation
  • Better use of resources

The information gathered from Townsville’s smart sensors will play a role in disaster preparation and response, and can be integrated into systems used by different government agencies, making it a critical resource. The data can help build knowledge of environmental flow paths during heavy rain and flood events, and provide further insight around tropical design.

During flood emergencies, sensors can provide earlier warning and evacuation times to protect communities and lives. “Low-cost sensor packages means we can generate realtime data which can provide a better understanding of impacts during environmental events and disasters, supporting residents and environmental repair works,” Mr Soars said.

Driving sustainable action

Townsville’s sensors will also be used to inform a variety of future environmental and urban planning initiatives. Mr Soars said the insights gained from the sensors will ensure council’s urban footprint is developed outside of key environmental natural areas, reducing impact on these spaces.

“Council is committed to growing Townsville as a sustainable destination and a tropical environmental research centre, attracting businesses that are focused on delivering positive impacts for our environment. “With this data we can improve our information collection and our analysis, and visualisation, of information.

“Council is focused on growing Townsville’s circular economy where we make sure our by-products are used to the best of their ability, like transforming weeds into healthy soils and working with First Nations people and businesses in reporting on our local landscape,” Mr Soars said. “As we continue to collect data from our environmental sensors we will use this data to help protect and regenerate our environments.”

Data collected from the deployed sensors will be collated and made available to the community through council’s Townsville Dashboards website. By providing near real-time data, the sensors can support council and the community to better manage energy costs in city buildings, homes and businesses, and to improve council’s understanding of complex urban waterways and wetlands.

This deeper insight into environmental conditions will also support community resilience and guide effective decision-making.

Cr Maurie Soars with one of the innovative sensors. Image: City of Townsville.

Community involvement

Mr Soars said Council was proud to collaborate with local businesses and schools to build the sensors. “Council has worked with researchers and students to offer opportunities for community involvement in applied research and development sprints to both uncover and learn from our local environment; applying experimental sensors, long-range wireless networks and insight driven data analysis.

“In these collaboration processes we have involved residents, students, researchers and local businesses, and even building owners and developers of artificial intelligence. “Working with primary and high schools to get students building and helping deploy the sensors is a great way to engage young people and encourage them to think about environmental health in their own backyards.”

As the impacts of climate change reverberate through cites, sensor technology can help support ecosystems to thrive and prepare communities for an uncertain future, with Townsville leading this implementation of this innovative solution.


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