A tool used to hunt for galaxies in our universe may serve another significant purpose: hunting down poachers and saving endangered species.
The Royal Astronomical Society is collaborating with ecologists from the Liverpool John Moores University to devise drones carrying infrared cameras that are designed to automatically detect thermal signatures, which allows it to pick out movements from animals or people even in the dark. Most poaching activity occurs at nighttime, when there's less risk for poachers of being seen and captured.
From Galaxies To Animals
That technology is usually reserved for spotting galaxies in the sky, in which the tool looks for the glow of far-off stars invisible to the naked eye, but it's being repurposed for the sake of animals most vulnerable to illegal poaching.
The first set of trials occurred in September 2017, which saw the drones picking out heat signatures of endangered Riverine rabbits in South Africa. Next month, the team of researchers will head to Malaysia to study orangutans, then in Mexico for spider monkeys, then in Brazil for river dolphins.
The drones are able to survey wide areas of terrain from above, which will enable ecologists to access hard-to-reach areas as a way to monitor potential disturbances in the animal environment.
"[W]e can easily see animals as a result of their body heat, day or night, and even when they are camouflaged in their natural environment," said Claire Burke of the LJMU. She explains that since humans and animals glow similar to the way that stars do, technology typically used by astronomers may be applied to conservation efforts for endangered animals.
The project is based on open-source software Astropy, which uses machine learning algorithms and astronomical detection tools. The ecologists have also worked with Knowsley Safari and Chester Zoo to develop a library of images and teach the software to recognize various animals in a bevy of types of vegetation and landscape.
The company has also been developing software adjustments in order to train the tool to detect heat signatures even when certain elements, such as vegetation, hinder the registration of body heat. The software is also undergoing refinements to take into account elements such as weather and other natural factors.
The goal is to create a tool easily used by ecologists all over the world that "will allow endangered animals to be tracked, found and monitored easily and poaching to be stopped before it happens," according to Burke.