Counting Penguins

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Counting penguins is harder than it sounds. With freezing rain, snow, and chilling winds that limit the flight windows for the surveys, it takes scientists using three full days to map the location of 300,000 nesting pairs of Adélie penguins on Antarctica’s Cape Crozier.

Now, UgCS software by SPH Engineering has helped scientists to cut that time to just 3 hours using drones and a new flight path algorithm. Previously, scientists piloted single drones back and forth over swaths of land. Now, a new flight-path algorithm called “Popcorn” automatically sets the course for multiple drones to pass over the same area in just a fraction of the time, while avoiding collisions and meeting strict airspace regulations.

The new program, which cuts out the human pilot, was a more than 10-fold improvement on previous techniques, researchers reported last month in Science Robotics. On top of that, the researchers captured breathtaking footage of the penguins’ movements, which change in response to shifting patterns of sea ice. A team of experts from Stanford University, Point Blue Conservation Science, and Conservation Metrics programmed the autonomous drones to take thousands of high-resolution images on each survey.

Efficiency is the key to getting the most out of the UAVs. Even under ideal circumstances, most commercial UAVs only have enough battery power to fly for at most about half an hour. In Antarctica, chilly temperatures can cause the batteries to expend their charge even faster.

“This algorithm will give you a set of paths depending on the type of drone you have,” said researcher Kunal Shah, who led the development of the algorithm that plans the most efficient UAV path. “It takes the battery limit into consideration and it will give you basically a list of paths that you can fly starting from whatever starting location you want.”

Annie Schmidt, a researcher at Point Blue Conservation Science, added, “Using UgCS with a custom route planning algorithm, our team efficiently photographed over 300,000 breeding pairs of penguins at Cape Crozier, Antarctica. Ultimately these surveys will contribute to large-scale assessments of penguin populations and breeding success, key metrics for monitoring the health of the Antarctic marine ecosystem.”

Schmidt further explained, ““What’s unique about this is being able to not just count, but having the numbers spatially referenced so we know that in this part of the colony there were this many birds and then there are this many chicks in that part. We’ve never had that kind of information before. That will give us a lot of power to analyze information from that specific spot and how that influences the penguins. Ultimately we’d like to scale this to potentially other places and other colonies that are hard to survey because they’re so large.”

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation and carried out under Antarctic Conservation Act Permit #ACA 2020-005.

Updated: May 18, 2021 — 5:46 pm

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