Almost a million plant specimens held at the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra are to be digitised in one of largest undertakings of its kind.
What would have required eight years of painstaking work will be achieved in nine months, thanks to an automated system developed by Dutch firm Picturae.
Managed by the CSIRO, the process will mean being able to rapidly provide information for bushfire recovery and biosecurity projects, says overseer Pete Thrall.
The mass creation of digitised replicas will also ensure the integrity of the herbarium's collection, which is one of the largest and most significant in the country.
Specimens include those collected during James Cook's 1770 expedition which are highly valued for both their cultural importance and as a record of Australia's pre-European flora.
Co-ordinator of the digitisation project Emma Toms says using a standard camera rig would have meant a 2030 completion date.
However using Picturae's technology will involve positioning the specimens to capture high resolution images as they pass along a conveyor belt.
"The first step is a visual check of each to ensure it is in good condition and has a barcode to link to its digital record," she said.
"Two people unpack the specimens at the start of the ... belt and one person repacks (them) and checks the photographs for any errors."
The CSIRO's Abdo Khamis says machine learning and AI will also help make the herbarium collection more useful by enabling researchers to extract trait information from images.
"We can use digitised herbarium specimens to understand how plants are responding to climate change, for example, by determining how the reproductive structure of flowers is changing with time," he said.
The team will continue to grow the herbarium's digital assets as more specimens are added.
Ms Toms says an in-house program will then be used to photograph them as they are incorporated into the collection, which will eventually be made public through the Atlas of Living Australia.
Australian Associated Press
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