COLLABORATION

University of Bristol pioneers research into drone technology for wildlife conservation

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A team monitoring the population of the critically endangered Kordofan giraffe at Bénoué National Park formed a partnership with the University of Bristol to explore the use of new technology for wildlife conservation.

A collaboration between University of Bristol and the Bristol Zoological Society is set to explore the use of drone technology that could potentially revolutionise wildlife conservation efforts worldwide.

A team monitoring the population of the critically endangered Kordofan giraffe at Bénoué National Park, Cameroon formed a partnership with the University of Bristol to explore the use of new technology to identify the best strategy for wildlife monitoring.

This team, which received funding from Cabot Institute for the Environment, BZS and the EPSRC’s CASCADE grant, trialed the use of drones, sensor technologies and deployment techniques to monitor the Kordofan giraffe populations in the park last December.

Head of Field Conservation and Science at Bristol Zoological Society, Gráinne McCabe recognises the growing need to establish more accurate measurements of populations to guide conservation actions due to the significant and drastic decline of larger mammals in the park recently.

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This view is echoed by Conservation Science Lecturer at Bristol Zoological Society, Caspian Johnson.

He said, “Bénoué National Park is very difficult to patrol on foot and large parts are virtually inaccessible, presenting a huge challenge for wildlife monitoring. What’s more, the giraffe are very well camouflaged and often found in small, transient groups.”

This partnership, spearheaded by Matt Watson from the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, and Tom Richardson from the University’s Aerospace Department and a member of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) aims to further substantiate the suitability of drone technology for future conservation efforts, worldwide.

Watson and Richardson, together with  Tilo Burghardt from the Department of Computer Science are now working with Bristol Zoological Society to put together a large-scale proposal to develop the technologies required for this challenge.

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In its initial findings, the team were able to draw on successful collaborations using drone technology to monitor and measure volcanic emissions to begin developing a system for wildlife monitoring.

“On the surface this might seem relatively easy but imagine an area the size of greater London – (~1600 square kilometres) – heavily wooded, in which you are trying to find and identify an estimated population of just twenty to thirty Kordofan giraffe,” said Watson.

Richardson also commented on these findings, “It is likely that we will need more than one type of drone, and several different sensors to allow us to operate 24 hours a day and throughout the year,”

He added “Modern multispectral cameras combined with machine learning and high-performance vehicles will need to be fully automated to cover an area of this size. Combine that with remote, constrained field operations and we have an interesting set of engineering problems to tackle.”

Watson added that this research will be able made applicable for the purpose of studying other large mammals as well, through the development of a machine learning based system.

This system, combined with low-cost aircraft systems capable of automated deployment without the need for large open spaces to launch and land will significantly revolutionise how conservation projects are carried out worldwide.