Researchers from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT) are working with local councils to test a new tool for protecting the vulnerable koala populations: drones equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) and backed by statistical analysis.
Koala experts with Logan, Gold Coast and Tweed councils are working with a multidisciplinary team of QUT researchers and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) specialists to develop and trial technologies they hope will prove cheaper and more accurate than current tracking methods, according to QUT.
Felipe Gonzalez, an associate professor at the university, says the team has developed a unique combination of UAVs with thermal imaging, statistical modeling and AI.
“We’ve found thermal imaging can detect even well camouflaged koalas effectively, and our counting and tracking algorithms can allow us to differentiate the shape of a koala from a possum, bird or other animal,” he explains.
“This project is concentrating on koala populations, but the technology can easily be adapted for other species, be they native or pest species, like wild dogs or feral cats,” Gonzalez adds.
QUT says one survey took only 30 minutes to complete and typically takes humans more than two hours to conduct.
Dr. Grant Hamilton and Dr. Sandra Johnson, ecology and statistics experts at QUT, say the technology would not only count koalas, but also monitor their movements and population fluctuations over time.
“Understanding the abundance of a species in an area is fundamental to the management of that species, and the more regularly and accurately you can monitor the health of the population, the better,” Hamilton says. “This combination of technology can provide councils with a wealth of rich data a human cannot, such as exact GPS locations and high-resolution imaging.”
Cherie Dalley, deputy mayor of Logan City Council, says having access to this type of information would go a long way in helping the council better manage its koala population.
“Logan residents are lucky to share their backyard with one of the largest koala parks in the world,” Dalley said. “The Daisy Hill Koala Centre takes in 435 hectares of open eucalypt forest, and the data collected by drones will help us get a better understanding of koala numbers to ensure their long term survival.”
The project is expected to wrap up within the next few months, after which the final results will be shared with the councils.