infrared animal poaching

Drone-borne infra-red cameras used with AI to catch poachers

Image credit: pa

A system combining AI, drones and infra-red imaging has been designed to monitor animals at night in order to prevent poaching.

The drones can survey large areas of difficult terrain from above, allowing ecologists to access hard to reach areas and monitor wildlife without disturbing the animals said the team who developed the technology at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU).

In an early field trial in South Africa, it was used to detect elusive riverine rabbits, one of the most endangered mammals in the world.

Scientists hope in future the heat-sensitive drones will make it easier to track animals such as rhinos and spot poachers hunting them under cover of darkness.

The project is based around machine-learning algorithms and astronomical detection tools developed through the open-source software Astropy.

Following an initial pilot project to test the concept with infra-red footage of cows and humans filmed by drone at a farm, the team has worked to build up libraries of imagery to train the software to recognise different types of animals in different types of landscape and vegetation.

The software models the effects of vegetation blocking body heat, allowing the detection of animals concealed by trees or leaves. It is now being refined and upgraded to compensate for atmospheric effects, weather and other environmental factors.

LJMU’s Dr Claire Burke said: “With thermal infra-red cameras, we can easily see animals as a result of their body heat, day or night, and even when they are camouflaged in their natural environment.

“Since animals and humans in thermal footage ‘glow’ in the same way as stars and galaxies in space, we have been able to combine the technical expertise of astronomers with the conservation knowledge of ecologists to develop a system to find the animals or poachers automatically.”

Describing the riverine rabbit trial, Burke said: “The rabbits are very small, so we flew the drone quite low to the ground at a height of 20 metres. Although this limited the area we could cover with the drone, we managed five sightings.

“Given that there have only been about 1,000 sightings of riverine rabbits by anyone in total, it was a real success.”

In May the astro-ecologists will carry out more field trials looking for orangutans in Malaysia and spider monkeys in Mexico. Then in June they will carry out a search for Brazilian river dolphins.

“Our aim is to make a system that is easy for conservationists and game wardens to use anywhere in the world, which will allow endangered animals to be tracked, found and monitored easily and poaching to be stopped before it happens,” said Burke.

A similar system that uses static infra-red cameras rather than drones was recently demonstrated that is enabling authorities in Botswana to catch poachers.

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