Fruit bat hanging from branch

Night-vision software protects birds and bats from wind turbines

Image credit: Dreamstime

The night-vision technology that allows soldiers to see in the dark could also be applied to help protect birds and bats from wind turbines around offshore wind farms.

With winds considerably stronger offshore and the need for alternative energy sources growing, the US and UK may look to offshore wind farms to provide a significant fraction of its energy in the future. A serious drawback to wind turbines, however, is their disruption to the local ecosystem and stories of birds becoming confused and being killed by turbine blades have garnered attention.

In order to minimise small tragedies such as these, researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have developed software aimed at surveying potential wind farm building sites for birds and bats. This could allow for minimal disruption of wildlife when offshore wind farms are built and enter operation.

The software is based on thermal imaging, the same technology used in soldiers’ night-vision goggles. All objects with a temperature above absolute zero emit infrared radiation, which is captured by thermal-imaging devices.

The software, ThermalTracker, automatically categorises birds and bats captured in thermal video. The idea behind the project is to use ThermalTracker to search for birds and bats in an area and thus determine whether an offshore wind farm would disrupt the wildlife.

NPPL

“ThermalTracker can help developers and regulators make informed decisions about siting and operating offshore wind projects,” said Dr Shari Matzner, an engineer at PNNL. “We need scientific tools like this to better understand how offshore wind turbines can coexist with birds and bats.”

Researchers at the Biodiversity Research Institute have been testing the software in Maine to see how well it can identify birds compared with human observations.

“Developing technology to detect bird and bat avoidance at terrestrial and offshore wind farms will promote a better understanding of the nature of wildlife risks – or lack thereof – at any type of wind farm, and reduce uncertainty about the potential for unintended impacts during operation,” said Wing Goodale, deputy director of the Biodiversity Research Institute.

“These cameras could provide a reliable method of detecting bird and bat response to offshore wind projects, where it is not possible to conduct traditional wildlife monitoring.”

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