Hunting Burmese pythons in the Floridian Everglades is no easy task. The camouflage of these snakes works so well that they are almost impossible to spot in amid the sawgrass and other swamp vegetation. However, there is a new guy in town that makes spotting pythons much easier and faster and it is a drone outfitted with an infrared thermal camera.

DJI Inspire 2

Drone outfitted with an infrared thermal camera

In the beginning of November, VolAero, a drone startup out of Miami, teamed up with veteran snake catcher Bill Booth and thermographer (thermal videographer?) Bart Bruni to test using drones with thermal cameras to spot these dangerous snakes. After completing their test successfully both Bruni and Booth say that this new drone technology may revolutionize the way the invasive snakes are spotted and caught. It may well be a gamechanger for Florida’s population control efforts.

“Using a thermal drone is like having x-ray vision,” says Booth, a 52-year-old from Bradenton who won the state’s python challenge last year after killing a 15-foot, 125-pound snake in the Miami New Times. “Even if a snake is 16 inches long, camouflaged, and not moving, the drone can help us see it.”

How did Burmese pythons end up in Everglades?

Burmese pythons are not native to the Everglades in Florida but were released in the swamp by pet owners who released the creatures once fully grown. Of course, Hurricane Andrew completely destroying a python-breeding facility in 1992, didn’t help. The invasive snakes have no natural predators in the Everglades and their population has grown tremendously. Currently, there are more than 100,000 pythons in the Everglades. Some scientists estimate that the snakes are responsible for reducing the native small wildlife by 90%.

Florida has tried various ways to get rid of the invasive snake species, one of which is the state-sponsored python hunt. State licensed hunters are paid $8.10 per hour for up to eight hours per day. In addition, they receive a $50 bonus for every python measuring more than four feet. Every foot over brins in an extra $25. For every python nest with eggs that is removed the state pays $200. However, according to Booth, this is not enough for a full-time job.

“It basically just covers the cost of fuel,” he says.

As a result, most python hunters hunt only part-time and controlling the snake population remains a very difficult task. That is why a drone outfitted with a thermal infrared camera makes such a big difference. Large plots of land can be screened much more effectively and faster.

Even though snakes are cold-blooded animals, they do have unique heat signatures, especially when they are incubating eggs, that allows them to be spotted from the air. Bruni was able to calibrate the cameras so that the snakes became easily visible from the sky.

“Thermography is a very technical science, but if the cameras are set properly, you can find snakes in their reproductive state,” he says. “Considering a single clutch will have between 100 to 120 eggs, 77 percent [of which] survive, thermal imaging can help hunters expand their tracking range.”

It is still to early to determine if drones are going to be the solution to controlling Florida’s python population as it would require significant funding but Bruni is hopeful. He says:

“Pythons are unbalancing the ecosystem of the entire Everglades,” he says, “but now we can control it.”

Video and photos

In the video, you can see how Bruni films as Booth catches a large python during the test on November 11th. It seems that one of the drones used during the test is a DJI Phantom.

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