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Desert knowledge, innovation and inspiration

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

Desert communities in Australian have a rich cultural heritage based on innovation and inspiration. Important pioneering developments and events that have occurred in desert areas have helped shape Australian society and industry.

Solar pump used to push water up a hill, courtesy of Desert Knowledge CRC and Adrian James

Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (QANTAS) was, for example, originally conceived to deliver scheduled mail to the desert-based towns of Cloncurry and Charleville in 1922, and its first office was located in Longreach in Queensland. As part of Australia's civil aviation industry, Qantas extended its office to Brisbane in 1929. By 1935, Qantas took over the Darwin–Singapore sector of the Royal Mail route and then, in 1938 the entire Australia–England route – before being nationalised in 1947 as ‘Qantas the Australian Airline'.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) developed from an idea to link medicine with communications and aircraft to service medical needs in inland Australia. The RFDS started in 1928 with a two-seater biplane that was operated by Qantas. It now incorporates over 60 mobile intensive care aircraft. The RFDS operates the largest flying doctor service of its type in the world.

Pupil of the School of the Air at Hermannsburg, Northern Territory in1954, image by Neil Murray courtesy of the National Archives of Australia

The RFDS established a radio network across the vast centre of the country. This network was powered by an Australian innovation – Alfred Traeger's pedal-powered radio. In 1948, the Alice Springs RFDS base was used to broadcast the first school lessons to outback children. Just a few years later, the School of the Air (SOA) was officially established.

Everything that lives in deserts, including people, depends for survival on highly specialised strategies that capitalise on unpredictability and resource scarcity. These strategies, and the knowledge that underlies them, are likely to be of increasing significance…
(Stafford Smith & Cribb 2010 in Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, Inspiration from the deserts, April 2012)

Royal Flying Doctor Service. Courtesy of Department of Industry

Today there are many science and survival issues addressed in the desert which are of concern to the wider community: green, especially solar, energy; water; biodiversity; Aboriginal traditional knowledge; climate change; information communication technology; low impact mining operations; food; medicines, and appropriate technologies.

There are advantages in expanding and acknowledging desert knowledge, innovation and inspiration for two main groups: desert dwellers, and people travelling to the desert.

The other group is people from outside the desert who stand to gain from improving their knowledge and understanding of the desert as one of the defining features of Australia, its economy and its culture.
(Inspiring Australia, Inspiration from the deserts, 2013)


Desert innovation in energy is about developing sustainable energy from the deserts, including solar thermal, photovoltaics, geothermal, natural gas and wind. Alice Springs is home to both the Bushlight program, which develops solar systems to meet remote community needs, and Alice Solar City Project, which looks at large infrastructure and suburban energy projects.

The Bushlight Program – solar energy rolled out across communities

People living in remote areas, far away from mainstream goods and services, need a reliable power supply that is appropriate to their needs. The Bushlight program designs solar and solar-diesel hybrid systems to meet community needs under a Renewable Energy Program. Solutions are developed together with the Indigenous people who need them.

Free standing solar array developed by CAT as part of its Bushlight program for a Kaanju community at Chuulu homelands, Queensland, image courtesy of CAT.

The Bushlight program has extended from Alice Springs across northern Australia to remote communities in Western Australia on the Indian Ocean, and the Gulf of Carpentaria for communities in the Northern Territory and Queensland. The Bushlight program has offices operating in Central Australia, North Queensland, Top End Northern Territory, and Kimberley Western Australia. In 2013, at Chile Creek on the Dampier Peninsular, the community received the 100th Bushlight system to be installed.

In 2013, data showed that after five years of reliable operation, the Bushlight system had provided 96 per cent of the community's energy needs. To date this has saved one family an estimated 100,000 litres of diesel fuel and $210,000 (based on access to 24 hour power @ 50L/per day at the $2.10 a litre it costs in nearby Lombadina).
(Bushlight program, Newsletter 31)

Established in 1983, Mabunji Aboriginal Resource Centre in Borroloola, in the Gulf of Carpentaria Region of the Northern Territory, services 15 communities that are on the Bushlight Repair and Maintenance Program with stand-alone renewable energy systems.

Selma Hoosan and William Coolwell cleaning array panels for Mabunji at Sandridge, Northern Territory, June 2012 courtesy of CAT.

Mabunji supports 26 Aboriginal homelands and provides services in transport, housing, water and power and a range of town-based facilities including the aged care centre, arts centre, crèche, night patrol, housing and Community Development Employment Project activities. Mabunji employs over 120 full time staff, 85 per cent of whom are local Aboriginal people.

The Bushlight Program is now being rolled out across India to provide people with affordable, green electricity. The project has been recognised at the Northern Territory Research and Innovation Awards.

The Alice Solar City and Alice Springs Airport and Hospital projects

The Alice Springs based Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) and other partners, especially the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC), have been instrumental in the Alice Solar City and Alice Springs Airport projects. The Alice Solar City project is designed to empower the local community to implement energy efficiency measures, solar energy technology, and smart electricity metering and tariffs.

Solar installations at Alice Springs airport, courtesy of Alice Solar City project.

At Alice Springs airport, 28 photovoltaic tracking arrays have been constructed which feed electricity into the Alice Springs Airport. The Alice Solar City project is expected to meet approximately 28 per cent of the Airport's electricity needs, and will reduce carbon emissions by around 470 tonnes per annum.

Other Solar City projects in Alice Springs include: the Alice Springs Hospital Energy Efficiency Project, The Sustainable Living House Project, and the Tangentyere housing project which is providing upgrades to 61 houses across 12 town camps.

Centre for Appropriate Technology

The Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) is a national Indigenous science and technology non-profit organisation that has a 30 year history working to develop sustainable livelihoods and solutions in remote Aboriginal communities . CAT provides technical advice and services to Indigenous communities throughout regional and remote Australia.

CAT works closely with Indigenous people and their support agencies to deliver a range of infrastructure, design, construction, engineering and technology options. Early products and designs included appropriate bush toilets and almost water-free hand washing machines.

CAT's innovation is built upon values of self-reliance, and strategies that recognise unpredictability and resource scarcity. The thinking behind CAT has driven the development of solutions for energy use, waste and communication and highly popular online ‘tech kits'.

CAT technological innovations – hand washing machine, drum and solar ovens

Hand powered washing machine by CAT, 1991, courtesy of Powerhouse Museum

The hand washing machine is an example of the rugged well-designed products made by CAT as part of a program which aims to provide training and jobs for Indigenous people and make products which are useful to communities and can be repaired using local resources.

CAT has been known for the range of BUSH HARDY products it has been making since 1980. These have included: hand washing machines, mobility aids, drum ovens, chip heaters, art racks, fire trailers and more recently, wicking beds.

The design and development of Drum Ovens responded to a desire expressed by people in Central Australia to prepare and cook food outside their house. The drum oven allows a range of meals, including kangaroo, to be baked in an outside oven. The oven was designed to keep food and utensils out of the reach of dogs.

The CAT designed solar cooker is available from the CAT website for easy construction with materials available from hardware shops. It is made from two open boxes; the outer made from plywood, and the inner from aluminium with a layer of insulation. A timber framed piece of glass forms the seal of these two boxes and a single reflector is attached to the top. It takes about twice the cooking time of a conventional oven.


CAT project, Getting good water supplies in remote Indigenous communities, courtesy of CAT

Water is one of the world's most precious resources. Internationally, it is recognised that small communities experience great challenges in maintaining reliable water supply and quality.

In remote Australia, choices of water source are often limited … extraction of water for small community supplies is often through ageing stock bores or informal surface water extraction … Over half the population of discrete Aboriginal communities rely on groundwater for their water supply – an estimated 48,511 people, living in 694 locations nationwide.
CAT, Getting good water supplies in remote Indigenous communities

During 2008 and 2009, CAT trialed a Field Guide; a kit designed specifically for water management planning in Australian Indigenous communities as part of their best practice process of managing small water supplies.

The priceless knowledge of how to find, secure and maintain water sources in the desert concerns desert dwellers – both Indigenous people and pastoralists. Access to stock water for the pastoral industry in desert Australia is now being developed with the use of new technologies and awareness of water management.

WaterSmart Pastoral Production project, 2008, courtesy of Desert Knowledge Centre

The WaterSmart Pastoral Production™ project was a Desert Knowledge Centre (DKC) project which ran from 2003–07. Five commercial pastoral enterprises from South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland were involved in the project. The project produced a practical guide for stock water management in desert Australia.

The Lake Eyre Basin is one of the world's last great desert river systems, spreading across the borders of Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australia. It covers one sixth of the continent and holds some of the rarest, least exploited ecosystems on the planet. Its management is subject to a Lake Eyre Basin Intergovernmental agreement.

A joint project of the Desert Knowledge Centre was ‘People, Communities and Economies of the Lake Eyre Basin'. The project aimed to develop tools for sustainable natural resource management and to develop community capacity at local levels within a large, complex, multi-jurisdictional system. At the same time the project considered the social, cultural and economic characteristics of the Lake Eyre Basin, especially in relation to water.

Information communication technologies

The current aim of information communication technology in desert areas is to help introduce novel communication technologies to remote areas and communities, to increase access to the National Broadband network. However, there is still great reliance on radio, wireless and satellite communication as well as a great take up of mobile telephones.

Construction of RATV, remote area television, satellite dish at Birdsville, Queensland 1 April 1981, image courtesy of NAA 6681246 sJ2364

Access to communication technology such as a two-way radio or telephone is of great importance to many people who live in remote outstations and homelands. A telephone or two-way radio means people can get help quickly if a family member is sick or in need of other assistance. However, telecommunications infrastructure is limited in many remote communities.
The Community Housing and Infrastructure Needs Survey (CHINS) 2001 found that 54 per cent of small communities (population less than 50 people) did not have access to a telephone.
(ICAT, Local radio networks, BUSH TECH #20)

In many communities, people have a strong knowledge and history of using two-way radio to communicate, particularly through the use of HF radio for contacting the Flying Doctor Service.

Communities in some regions are returning to radio as a useful way to communicate, such as the Kanymari Project in the Wellesley Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and PY Com in the Anangu–Pitjantjatjara Lands.

The Kanymari Project is now complete after the radio systems were commissioned in November 2003. Work involved the establishment of a range of new telecommunications services on the islands including: residential telephones, CDMA Mobile at Gununa, and VHF Mobile Base Stations at Gununa, Nungalah, Numringun, and Bentinck Island, creating a radio repeater network with links connecting the various sites together.

A local two-way radio network can provide people with ‘free' communication in the local area. Sometimes the network can provide limited access to the telephone network.

Remote area television and broadcasting, 1980s

During the early 1980s, facilities to broadcast in remote areas of Australia were rare although construction of a remote area television service was undertaken in the early 1980s in areas from Birdsville to Cooktown. In 1985 the launch of Australia's first communications satellite, Aussat, made mainstream broadcast of television and radio to remote Australia possible for the first time.

Buy CAAMA Cassettes, poster, designed by Michael Callaghan and Jeff Stewart, made by Redback Graphix, Wollongong, 1984, courtesy of Powerhouse Museum.

In the 1980s, some Indigenous communities in remote Australia chose to adapt low-cost video, videoconferencing and radio services to suit their needs. Desert communities such as Yuendumu and Ernabella started 'pirate' community television stations with live-to-air broadcasts. These community stations became established as Warlpiri Media Association (now PAW Media and Communications) and PY Media, respectively.

Indigenous broadcasting developed through various schemes:

  • Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) was established in 1980
  • Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS) delivered basic domestic audio and video equipment as well as two UHF television transmitters, satellite dish and two decoders to 80 communities by the late 1980s (now known as RIBS or the Remote Indigenous Broadcast Service from 1991)
  • Top End Aboriginal Bush Broadcasting Association (TEABBA) in 1989,
  • Imparja Television in 1988,
  • ICTV was established in 2001 and then,
  • National Indigenous TV (NITV) in 2007.

Desert Knowledge – Research Centre and Ninti One Limited

Solar powered energy supplies, courtesy of Ninti One

In 2000, a formal Desert Knowledge ‘movement' was born, when community and government formed a Steering Committee which led to the formation of Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) in 2003. DKA set out to build on people's desert knowledge by creating a research organisation which linked the best of Aboriginal knowledge with the best of Western science.

With funding, DKA began to operate as a national research network with 23 (later 28) partners nationwide and a small secretariat in Alice Springs. It looked at how Aboriginal knowledge and resources can be used for Aboriginal benefit. It operated from 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2010.

The work of the DKCRC continues under Ninti One Limited, the management company for the new Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP), and the Australian Feral Camel Management Project which has a strong list of partners.

Research efforts focus on creating useful outcomes that will have commercial application for desert people, communities and the industry partners. It was intended that all parties would benefit from the commercialisation of the research, as well as sharing the extensive knowledge common to all desert regions.

Today there is a focus on livelihoods, extending on some settlements to a mix of activities from pastoralism to tourism, natural and cultural resource management. There are also new industries in communities such as Yuendumu, Tapatjatjaka Community Council and through organisations such as Tangentyere Council.

Road train, unknown photographer.

Addressing transport, fuel and energy costs in desert communities, Ninti One believes that:

remote regions hold the key to much of Australia's low-emission energy future. Desert regions have abundant solar, geothermal, tidal, wind and wave energy sources and the aim is for desert communities to become energy self-sufficient and even become a net energy exporter.
(Ninti One, Energy Futures and Climate Adaptation in Remote Australia)

Desert inspiration programs

New programs to widen desert knowledge reflect desert inspiration as well as knowledge and innovation. These programs are wide-ranging and include: bush tucker and desert gardens, Indigenous knowledge of ecology and weather, astronomy, and the role of minerals.

Alice Springs Desert Park – Bush Tucker and Medicine Garden

Developing desert food and medicines technology is based on ‘unlocking the treasure chest of Australian native plants for food, medicine and other uses that have been largely ignored for 250 years'. The aim is to promote bush tucker, medicine knowledge and the secrets of a healthy diet.

Eremophila freelingii, courtesy of the Australian National Botanic Garden

In June 2008, a special garden created by the Alice Springs Desert Park was launched to provide bush tucker and bush medicine to chronic renal patients. The project supports and promotes Indigenous health and culture, as well as the use of Central Australian plants.

The garden was created for the Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku, a local charity that supports renal patients from remote communities who have to relocate to Alice Springs for lifelong dialysis treatment.

The bush onion (Yalka) and Quandong (Pmwerlpe) are some of the plants used as bush tucker. Some of the plants being used for bush medicines include: Stemodia viscosa (Pintye-pintye), used as a compress to relieve colds and flu; Eremophila freelingii (Arrethe), used as a skin wash to treat scabies; and Cymbopogon ambiguous (Ilintjii), used as a drinking medicine or rubbing medicine for colds and flu.
(Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts media release, 25/06/2008)

Desert science and science communication

Science is important in the desert and arid rangeland regions as it is not only the basis of most of the industries, it is essential in understanding the complex and fragile landscapes, and the physical and biological resources.

Aboriginal knowledge systems, including cultural and technical knowledge, deserve a particular emphasis since they have much to contribute to scientific understanding of the deserts. Science communication that simply promotes Western science overlooks the complementarities between Aboriginal perspectives and contemporary scientific understandings of the Australian desert regions.
Scitech (Science Network WA, Aboriginal Science and Knowledge)

Nyikina–Mangala Rangers Conan Lee (near) and Josh Albert (far) completing a survey, image courtesy of Kieran Richard and Science Network WA

The Kimberley Science Portal, is being run by Scitech (Science Network WA, Aboriginal Science and Knowledge) and promotes a range of projects across climate change, environmental data collection, and investigating Spinifex grass for alternative sustainable fibre:

  • Indigenous knowledge of ecology and weather
    Researchers have been studying traditional Indigenous knowledge of ecology and weather with the Mirriwoong people of the Ord Valley and Keep River in order to better manage the effects of climate change.
  • Environmental data in photographs and Aboriginal languages
    Traditional Owners are using a unique software program that collects environmental and cultural data to contribute to the land management and conservation of the desert rangelands areas in WA. CyberTracker is loaded onto a hand held computer or smart phone and uses GPS, camera and voice recording functions. Users are required to input data with the assistance of photographs, icons, and Aboriginal languages.
  • Spinifex grass as an alternative sustainable fibre
    Spinifex (Triodia sp.) grasses played an important role in Indigenous culture and researchers from University of Queensland (UQ) are working with traditional land owners in WA to understand more about the genus and its usage. The work is investigating spinifex grass as an alternative sustainable fibre.


Telescopes in the outback are not new, yet the launch of the world's fastest radio telescope in the outback Murchison region of Western Australia promises something different. The Square Kilometer Array Project (SKAP) will exponentially increase astronomers' ability to survey the universe, mapping black holes and shedding new light on the origins of galaxies.

Artists impression of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) in the Murchison, Western Australia, courtesy of Project Development Office and Swinburne Astronomy

The combined power of more than 10,000 linked radio antennae in Western Australia and Southern Africa will create the equivalent of a telescope with a one kilometre square dish – several times the collecting area of the largest existing telescopes. The new telescope is due to begin construction in 2016. The telescope is located in the Shire of Murchison, an area of 50,000 square kms (19,300 square miles), with only a just over 100 people.

Minerals and mining services

Mining prospecting in the semi-arid desert areas began as early as the 1860s in the Northern Territory and Queensland, and the 1880s in the Kimberley, Western Australia. The aim of desert innovation in mining is to ensure the adoption of the latest technologies for low-impact mining operations in remote regions, and to develop the role of mining in sustaining desert cultures and ecosystems. It is recognised that minerals are part of the origins of landscape.

NANA construction engineering services, courtesy of NANA Australia

Mining services, which provide the majority of jobs in the mining industry, now form the basis of longer term small business across the regions; companies are now working collaboratively across regions to share a greater share of the mining contracts. Examples include NANA Australia, which works to form partnerships with Australia's Indigenous businesses and build workforce capacity for long-term economic growth.

Desert knowledge, innovation and inspiration = global survival?

Desert survival, which necessarily has to rely upon strategies based on dealing with scarce resources and unpredictable conditions, is now very relevant in a world where global resources are becoming scarce and climate more unpredictable.

A 2013 report recommends that the Commonwealth fund a Secretariat to coordinate and facilitate a Desert Science Network (DSN).

Useful links

Look listen and play

Desert media

Australian desert innovation: organisations, projects and programs

Innovative Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) products

Desert places supporting and managing desert innovation

Reports on desert innovation

Creators: Kathryn Wells
Last updated: August 2013