Researchers develop drone method for penguin counting | Polarjournal
The use of increasingly popular drones in Antarctica is prohibited for tourists. The smal flight devices are allowed only for scientific and economic (marketing) purposes. And even then only under the strictest standards. For researchers, they are essential as helpers. Photograph: Rachael Herman, Stony Brook University/LSU

Penguins in the Antarctic are not only a great photo motif, but also a beacon for change. The size of the colonies and the breeding success are important indicators for the state of Antarctica to science. But in order to obtain such data, researchers have had to count the animals in a very tedious and lengthy way. “Automation” and “from above” are the keywords that are intended to help facilitate this work for both researchers and penguins. A research group has now achieved a breakthrough in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs.

The group, led by Stanford University assistant professor Marc Schwager, successfully developed an algorithm that allows multiple drones to fly autonomously over a specific area with penguins at the same time and take images. The high-resolution images are then assembled and the scientists receive an accurate picture of the penguin colony. Thus, the nests or the individuals can then be simply counted and the size can be precisely determined.

One of the test sites was the Adélie Colony at Cape Royds on Ross Island, Antarctica. Around 6,000 Adélie penguins live here every spring and probably around 3,000 chicks. Since the terrain is very hilly and the animals nest in groups, a count from the ground is tedious and inaccurate. Help could come from the air. Picture: Michael Wenger

“We could see people walking around the colonies and all the individual birds that were nesting and coming to and from the ocean. It was incredible»

Kunal Shah, Standford University, California

The study’s lead author, PhD student Kunal Shah, tested the algorithms developed by him and his colleagues near McMurdo station at two colonies of Adélie penguins, Cape Crozier with its approximately 300,000 breeding pairs, and at Cape Royds with about 3,000 breeding pairs. While the area at Cape Royds is smaller but hillier, the penguin nests at Cape Crozier are spread over a huge area. The counting from the air is nothing new in itself, but it is subject to many obstacles. Either helicopters are used which is questionable from an environmental point of view and which causes severe noise emissions; or single drones are used, which are only allowed to fly under strict conditions, thus prolonagting the entire count. The method of Shah and his colleagues reduced the time from just under two days to 2.5 hours and with great success: “We could see people walking around the colonies and all the individual birds that were nesting and coming to and from the ocean. It was incredible,” explains Kunal Shah.

Assistant Professor Marc Schwager and Kunal Shah explain why and how the research group conducted their successful tests for multiple drone use for scientific purposes over the colonies. Video: Standford University

The use of drones to observe animals in the wild is controversial. Disruption caused by the swirling noise, crash possibilities and resulting damage to animals and nature are the most frequently cited reasons for environmentalists to oppose drones. And in Antarctica, the rapidly changing flight conditions and the shortened battery life due to the cold are very important problems that can lead to crashes. The researchers also see this. But they point out that their algorithm calculates the most efficient way for the drones, thus saving time and battery energy. In addition, the algorithm also ensures that the drone maintains a constant distance from the ground, regardless of the topography. This in turn protects the penguins from the noise of the drones.

The image shows the routes of the drones using the same entry and exit point. The orange areas are no-fly zones, the purple line is the path of observers on the ground, and the yellow dots are the security pilots who would manually control and retrieve the drones if necessary. Bild: Shah et al (2020) Sci Robot 5 eabc3000

The route calculated by the researchers also includes overlapping locations, so that a complete image is built from the images of all drones. This allows for capturing every nest and penguin. The group wants to further expand its method and not only count the nests, but in a next step take up the colonies during the rearing of the chicks and thus determine the breeding success of the colonies. This way, the changes experienced by Antarctica and the penguins can be recorded and detected earlier eventually. “I think that teams of autonomous robots can really be powerful in helping us manage our changing world, our changing environment, at a scale that we never could before,” says Kunal Shah. This would also give the penguins a watchful eye from above.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Shah et al (2020) Sci Robot 5 (47) eabc3000 Multidrone aerial surveys of penguin colonies in Antarctica, doi: 10.1126/scirobotics.abc3000

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