‘Astrophysics-Ecology’ Drone Project Sets out to Save Endangered Species

An astrophysicist and an ecologist from England’s Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) are using unmanned aircraft as part of an effort to help endangered species, including rhinos, orangutans and elephants.

According to a press release from the university, which calls the initiative the “world’s first astrophysics-ecology drone project,” the authors of the study (which was published in the International Journal of Remote Sensing) have brought together drones, thermal cameras and the techniques used to analyze objects in space.

Specifically, they’re using software that astronomers have developed to detect very distant objects in space – but on drone footage. The paper shows that this software can robustly pick out the heat signatures of animals in an automated way, the university says.

Identifying animals in such data is usually done “by eye” by individual researchers – which is very time-intensive, given the exponentially growing volumes of footage – but LJMU hopes that this new technique can overcome a fundamental bottleneck in conservation research.

Professor Serge Wich, who comes from LJMU’s School of Natural Sciences and Psychology and the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, is a pioneer in using drones for conservation work and is the founder of conservationdrones.org, says LJMU.

“As an ‘eye in the sky,’ conservation drones are helping the fight against illegal deforesting, poaching and habitat destruction – all leading to many species being endangered, including rhinos, orangutans and elephants,” he says. “Now, teamed with the same astrophysics analysis techniques used to find and identify objects in the far-distant universe, we can try to do this more efficiently.

“The World Bank estimates that ecosystems provide $33 trillion every year to the global economy and biodiversity loss, and consequent ecosystem collapse is one of the 10 foremost dangers facing humanity. We hope this research will help tackle these problems by allowing anyone in the world to upload their aerial data and, in real time, get back geo-locations of anything – whether that be survivors of natural disasters, or poachers approaching endangered species, or even the size, weight and health of livestock.”

Dr. Steve Longmore from the LJMU Astrophysics Research Institute, explains why this is possible:

“Astrophysicists have been using thermal cameras for many decades,” he says. “Crucially, it turns out the techniques we’ve developed to find and characterize the faintest objects in the universe are exactly those needed to find and identify objects in thermal images taken with drones. The key to success is building libraries of the thermal heat profiles that act like ‘thermal fingerprints’ – allowing us to uniquely identify any animals detected. Our goal is to build the definitive fingerprint libraries and automated pipeline that all future efforts will rely upon.”

The university says the next stage of this research, which will be funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, is to start expanding these techniques to other applications, including disaster relief and search and rescue.


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