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Australia: Infrared-equipped drones better at spotting koalas than humans




Researchers from Queensland University of Technology in Australia have developed a new algorithm to help identify koala population numbers.

Traditionally, human spotters on the lookout for koalas are tasked with strolling through the bush, peering up at trees and keeping track of the numbers of koalas they see. This method, however, is slow, expensive and potentially disturbing for the animals.

How does it work?

The new surveying technique involves flying drones equipped with infrared cameras over bushland areas containing koalas. The research team developed an algorithm that identifies the unique heat signature emitted by the fuzzy marsupials. Koalas love to feast on eucalyptus trees and generally hang out beneath the forest canopy making normal aerial surveying difficult. The infrared cameras are able to see through the canopy and conduct surveys by passing up and down over a specific area of the bush in what is referred to as a “lawnmower pattern.” The cover image for this story shows gives an idea what the infrared camera ‘sees’ when it spots a koala beneath the canopy.

To ensure the technique had maximum effectiveness, the researchers flew test flights early in the mornings to ensure that the koala’s body temperature was likely to be the most different from that of the surrounding area.

How successful are humans at spotting koalas when compared to the drone?

When drone surveys of populations were tested against that from specially-trained human spotters, drones came out on top. Whereas humans are able to spot 70 percent of koalas in a given area, drone surveys achieved an 86 percent spot rate. Drones are also much faster: a UAV will take a couple of hours to survey an area that might take a human all day to do.

Koalas enjoy iconic status as a cuddly, chilled out Australia bear. Unfortunately, in some area of the country, factors like climate change and habitat destruction have them facing population declines. Conservations, therefore, need accurate population information to ascertain where best to apply their limited resources to sustain Australia’s koala population.

Koalas face population declines in multiple areas of Australia. Drones will help conservationists monitor their numbers more accurately.

This method was first trialled in 2016 and after finding success over the past few years it is likely to be used in other areas of Australia.

In recent years, drones have been adopted for many roles by conservationist and nature researchers. We brought you a story a year ago that showed that drones were, on average, better at counting wildlife than people. That seems to have been the case here too.

The researchers behind this project have indicated that there will continue to be a role for human and dog koala spotters in future because there were some areas that were not practical for a drone to access.

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