Saving the planet one drone at a time

Being a penguinologist is no easy task. It involves working in faraway places and often doing so in extreme weather, as many penguin species live in remote and hostile environments like Antarctica. But precisely because of their location near our planet’s south pole, penguins—and their decline—are a harbinger for the impacts of climate change and the havoc it is already wreaking in various places across the globe. However, climate change is far from being the only threat to penguins with overfishing and exposure to diseases highly impacting their populations. So, penguin data is critical for researchers like Oxford’s Tom Hart, who realized a few years ago that he was actually missing out on a whole chunk of data by not being physically present for the full penguin breeding cycle.

Working in Antarctica is usually only possible from October to February. Once the cold becomes too intense and sea ice starts blocking landing sites, researchers pack their bags and head back to analyze the data they collected, leaving a few months of unknown behind them.

While some might get discouraged by the difficulty of the task, others are stimulated by the challenge before them.Sitting across from Hart and listening to him enthusiastically talk about his work, I instantly knew that he belonged to the latter category.

When Hart began tracking “macaroni penguins” (yes, like the pasta) as a PhD candidate at Imperial College London in 2005, he had no way to anticipate that he would end up working with coders. He never anticipated that he would eventually contribute to the launch of a citizen science project that now allows thousands of people to help penguinologists analyze data collected using camera traps in Antarctica.

Hart, who describes himself as having always been a bit of a geek, decided to turn to technology to help solve the problems he was facing during his doctoral research.“You can’t monitor penguins, without some kind of tech if you want to follow them at sea,” he said. He began using tracking devices that once attached to a penguin, recorded information about diving. This allowed him to infer crucial information about the penguins’ behavior and decision-making.

Scientists and conservationists all over the world are challenged by gaps in the information available to them about the species they track. But there is no question about this macro trend at work. The UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), recently made headlines by announcing that one million species are at risk of extinction and finding solutions was urgent.

“The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” Robert Watson, chair of the IPBES, told The Guardian. “We have lost time. We must act now.”

Some of those solutions come from working with the tech sector. Although it can be difficult for zoologists and developers to speak each other’s language, the results can be mind-blowing. For example, the Visual Geometry Group, based in the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford, played a key role in solving some of the problems faced by penguinologist, by providing them with an interface that allows users to annotate images captured in Antarctica by camera traps during the coldest months.

Having such an interface meant that the team was suddenly able to collaborate in real time with distant researchers who were also viewing and annotating the images. But one of the limitations of the platform was that it could only allow five to ten people to look at the photos—that’s where “the Zooniverse” came into the picture.

The Zooniverse is the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research, according to its website. Based in Oxford, its goal is to bridge the gap between researchers and citizens around the world who are willing to assist them. One of its most popular projects is Galaxy Zoo, a crowd-sourced astronomy project that allows people to assist in the morphological classification of galaxies.

The platform is currently supporting over 90 projects,ranging from listening to manatee calls to recording orchid blooms. “People have actually photographed, and uploaded their field record, for locations where the BSBI [Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland] had previously not had a record,” said Kath Castillo, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, in an interview with the BBC.

When the Penguin Watch project went live (almost five years ago), it dramatically exceeded Hart’s expectations—on day one. “Somewhere between six and 12 hours after launch we realized that people had counted more images than we ever had,” he said, eyes sparkling.

Since then, over 6.5 million images have been classified and an-notated by over 50,000 registered volunteers, and the project is one of the most popular on the Zooniverse. Having such a plat-form which enables citizens to get involved in science projects, is a major step for the scientific world, but it is far from the only type of interaction currently happening between scientists and the tech sector. Recently, conservationists have taken steps towards collaborating more directly with tech innovators to develop new products adapted to their research.

A year ago, when I was working as the Science & Conservation Communications Officer at Chester Zoo in Chester, England, I came across a project that had brought together astrophysicists and drones to survey endangered species.

Proving the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, the concept was developed by an unusual duo—Professor Serge Wich, a conservationist, and Dr. Steve Longmore, an astro-physicist, both of whom worked at John Moores University in Liverpool.

I’ve always found astrophysics quite abstract and never really understood the passion for looking at things that are so far away and so difficult to grasp. In the same way that I struggle to wrap my brain around processes that happen at a cellular or molecular level, I have difficulty coping with studying something who’s scale is literally the universe.

Whether Wich views astrophysics differently or not, he never regarded his stargazing colleagues as natural team-members. “I collaborated with quite a few people during my career, but astrophysicists were not on my list of potential collaborators,” Wich told the BBC. “But here we are. It shows how the serendipity of how science works.”

The idea behind the innovative new technique developed in Liverpool is based on the work of Dr. Claire Burke, an astrophysicist who identifies galaxies based on the light they emit. Using the same principles, she built a software that could identify different species (instead of galaxies) by using their thermal signatures.

“When we look at animals in the thermal infrared, we’re looking at their body heat and they glow in the footage,” Burke told the BBC, “That glow is very similar to the way that stars and galaxies in space glow.”

The first images we received a few days after the team came to test their drone-mounted camera at the zoo, were mind blowing. Even in a dark environment like the bat cave, you could clearly see each individual bat glowing in various hues of blue and yellow. Though the technique is still being refined, once it’s launched in the wild, it promises to revolutionize the way conservationists conduct wildlife surveys, and would help provide better estimates of the population numbers for endangered species.

Innovative technology is often extremely expensive,however, and this can be a serious hurdle for conservationists. That’s something Alasdair Davies is very much aware of. Being a conservationist and a technologist, he has combined his expertise in both sectors “to bring affordable, customizable technology to the field,” he explains on the website of the Shuttleworth Foundation, a modestly sized fund that supports those working for social change.

Davies wants to lower the barriers currently inhibiting access to technology by developing and producing open hardware. He hopes that it will ultimately allow conservationists to monitor and protect our planet more effectively.

Among the species most positively impacted by this innovative work—penguins. When Hart talks about Penguin Watch and his research, his enthusiasm is contagious. He is excited to start exploring the potential that some of this recently developed technology can bring to monitoring the penguin populations he studies.

Prior to its collaboration with Davies, the Penguin Watch team was using off-the-shelf trail cameras, which were made originally for the hunting market and come with woodland camouflage patterns. Not ideal when your study species are in the middle of a snowy environment in Antarctica.

“Alasdair Davies has now built us cameras that do exactly what we want!” Hart said with excitement. The newly designed Raspberry Pi cameras are completely open source and Hart is already thinking about getting people to code them in new and innovative ways through online competitions.

Based in the U.K., the Raspberry Pi Foundation seeks to put the power of computing and digital making into the hands of people all over the world according to their mission statement. Among other pressing problems, in order to help solve the major environmental challenges confronting us, the camera they developed turned out to be surprisingly good in extreme temperatures, and has been working reliably in Antarctica at temperatures as low as -20°C. However, the truly exciting part is actually the door that this new camera is suddenly opening for conservationists—scientists are now able to have micro computers controlling their cameras, and can do all the analysis they would usually do at home directly on the cameras, while they are still in the field.

Equipped with a solar panel and an inbuilt battery, the cameras can be left in Antarctica for months and are able to respond to certain signals set up by the researchers. Hart explains that researchers could in the future, ask a camera to take only one photo per day to save battery, and when the presence of animals is finally detected, the frequency of data recording could be increased.

This type of technology can help scientists gather more data on endangered species, which is an important aspect of protecting those species in the future. By knowing what threats might impact a specific species and observing how it responds, conservationists are able to build models that provide an idea of how certain populations might react to major challenges like climate change, or ocean acidification.

What happens though, when the need for conservation action is urgent? For example, what do you do when you have turtle eggs that need to be moved because of an imminent threat—like their native beach not being a beach anymore?

That’s a question Megan Cromp is determined to answer. Several years ago Cromp was working with sea turtles in the Caribbean when she received an urgent call. A sea turtle nest was being washed out due to a wall having been built, cutting off access to the rest of the beach, and needed to be urgently relocated. Cromp rushed to her car ready to drive to the beach, only to find out that the vehicle was out of gas and the organization she was working for didn’t have any money left to refill the tank. She bought the gas herself and realized that conservationists around the world must face the same type of seemingly mundane impediments.

She decided to launch a mobile app that would help conservationists gain support and funding in real time, but would also be a way for supporters of conservation organizations to be able to give more than just funds.

Cromp spent years learning app design in her free time, and then partially built the app herself. “I really wanted to actually be a part of the solution,” she told me. She spent three months in the U.K. under the Biodiversity Fellows Programme at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, talking with experts to find out what kind of functionality they needed, and how to best meet the varying needs of the conservation community. Eventually, those discussions led her to Zooniverse.

Hart strongly believes that those discussions are key to fostering innovative collaboration. After all, if conservationists have no idea of what technology is out there, then they won’t even know which questions to ask. And being presented with new challenges can spur coders and inventors to develop new algorithms and new technology that they might not otherwise have even guessed could be useful.

As a conservationist myself, I cannot wait to see what other wonders will come out of future partnerships with the tech world. Surely if we can use our knowledge of galaxies to help protect endangered species, the possibilities must be endless.

This article was first published in 'Are We Europe' magazine, Issue 5, Summer 2019. Illustration is by Rosa ter Kuile.