Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia have developed a new method to monitor and observe koala bears. Koala-spotting drones outfitted with thermal cameras are more accurate and less invasive than traditional animal population monitoring techniques. We have seen other cases in which drones were used to monitor and count wildlife. What sets this method apart is that the Koalas hide below a thick canopy of leaves, making them much harder to spot.

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Koala-spotting drones are faster and more accurate

The researchers have explained the technique in nature Journal scientific reports. They used a specially developed algorithm to count the koalas and used drones outfitted with thermal cameras to detect the bear’s heat signature.

Dr. Grant Hamilton, from QUT’s School of Earth, Environmental and Biological Sciences and a co-author of the study, explains that the researchers were able to correlate the results from the koala-spotting drones with ground surveys of tracked radio-collared koalas.

With their thermal cameras, the drones can detect the heat signatures of the koala bears despite the canopy coverage of the eucalyptus trees.

“Nobody else has really managed to get good results anywhere in the world in a habitat this complex and in these kinds of numbers,” Dr. Hamilton said according to Phys.org

In the past, we have seen otter animal counting studies in which drones were used. However, Dr. Hamilton says, and those were relatively simple scenarios where they were, for instance, counting seals on a beach

“A seal on a beach is a very different thing to a koala in a tree,” Dr. Hamilton said. “The complexity is part of the science here which is really exciting. This is not just somebody counting animals with a drone, we’ve managed to do it in a very complex environment.”

Fly on cold mornings to get the most out of the thermal cameras

To get the most out of the thermal cameras the researches used the drones during early morning aerial sweeps in the colder months. At those times the difference between the heat signature of the koalas and their backgrounds environment was likely to be the greatest, making it easier to detect the animals.

Once all the flight data is collected, it is put through an algorithm that can distinguish the heat signatures of the koalas versus the other animals in the area. The researchers then compared the information collected by the drones with the info from the koalas that are tagged with GPS sensors. This way they were able to measure the accuracy of the koala spotting drones.

“On average, an expert koala spotter is going to get about 70 percent of koalas in a particular area,” Dr. Hamilton said. “We, on average, get around 86 percent. That’s a substantial increase in accuracy that we need to help protect threatened species.

Not only did the drones provide a much higher level of accuracy, but they can also monitor an area much much faster than can be done with human spotters.

“We cover in a couple of hours what it would take a human all day to do,” Dr. Hamilton said.

This does not mean that human spotters have immediately become obsolete though.

“There’s no point talking about it that way, because there are places that people can’t go and there are places that drones cant’ go,” he said. “There are advantages and downsides to each one of these techniques, and we need to figure out the best way to put them all together. What we do know now is that this is a really powerful tool within the tool box. Thinking about any one of these approaches as a silver bullet tends to make people complacent—they think the problem has been solved, so let’s move on. Koalas are facing extinction in large areas, and so are many other species and there is no silver bullet. This is a powerful technique in the right circumstances.”

Following the success of the study, the researchers are now looking to both expand the area in which the drones will be used as well as extending the algorithm so that other animals can be detected as well.

What do you think about koala-spotting drones? Let us know in the comments below.

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Photos: Queensland University of Technology

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