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wildlife aerial surveys using UAV

TIME WAITS FOR NO-ONE INCLUDING AERIAL SURVEYSBy Jerry Burley
Perhaps it would be even more pertinent to say that technology waits for no one, or so it seems. What is state of the art today is museum fodder tomorrow when it comes to tech and a similar step revolution is on the aerial survey doorstep right now.

Aerial surveys can be used for multiple purposes, from assessing deforestation and pollution to town planning, fire control, disease mapping and multiple other data gathering needs. It is a quick way to gather a mass of information in a fairly short space of time that can subsequently be reviewed on the ground, in our particular case here to help with animal population understanding in our national parks. The data gathering can be via conventional still or video camera, infrared or thermal imaging cameras and for certain jobs such as terrain topography studies a new technique called Lidar, where an astonishing 750,000 point images per second are gathered to produce a highly accurate (+/- 1mm!) relief map of land or structures. All clever stuff.

UAV technology

Queen Elizabeth National Park aerial survey

ISU international school of Uganda -

At the moment animal counts are done more or less the same way that they have been for decades via aerial surveys, with a pilot flying over a prescribed route (known as transects) in a small plane such as a Cessna 182 at a specific height, taking multiple photographs with high res cameras that are fixed to the fuselage of the plane.

In the “old days” this was photographically expensive, as these photos all had to be developed from celluloid film and then printed onto photographic paper. Sometimes human counters sat in the back of the plane and just manually recorded what they (thought) they saw. You can imagine the drift-off of concentration in the hot afternoon counting session, with the first cool beer of the evening being front of mind, can’t you? The advent of the digital SLR changed all that and photos are now effectively free once the equipment has been purchased. But moving on from the photo, the analysis is far from free, as skilled analysts have to pore over tens of thousands of images – in our case here – a large park, taken from just 300m above ground. Three or four analysts with large computer screens will take two to three months to go through each and every photo, manually counting the animals seen in them while simultaneously differentiating between species. Easy when it’s differentiating between an elephant and a crocodile, but less so when trying to separate a bushbuck from a Uganda Kob. So, you need a Cessna aircraft at USD400 per hour to hire, Avgas (aeroplane petrol) at USD2 per litre (200 litres per day), a pilots salary, plus several counters to analyze thereafter obviously all cost money. The time delay factor in counting often makes data by default somewhat stale three months later.

UCF aerial survey image taken by UAV

Queen Elizabeth National Park aerial survey

So, in this age of tech, why isn’t there a better method to do all this? As Richard Lamprey, the pilot and biologist who took the photos you are seeing here as part of the recent Queen Elizabeth NP survey accepted when we spoke recently, tech is on the point of making him, his plane, his cameras and his analysts all redundant. He believes he will be the last generation of manual data collector and analyzer. So what’s coming next?

Latest Technologies for Aerial Surveys

Something old and something new actually, and the combining of multiple hardware and software technologies, most of them existing or already emerging. We have all heard of a drone (military parlance for an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV).
Even civilian ones have been around for years and they get ever cheaper, better and with more fly time duration as the year’s pass. Some of these can stay up in the air for days, gathering up data using GPS-managed routes with pinpoint accuracy, without the need for a pilot. Solar fixed-wing UAV’s are improving the entire time, so not only no pilot, no fuel needed either. Or noise or pollution generation. Or maintenance. Bolt a camera on and away you go. With a 4K or 16K ultra HD camera now no bigger than a teacup, imagery of a quality unimagined 10 years ago can now be gathered by the thousands on a terabyte SD card. All for a few thousand dollars. And if you have a bit of local bandwidth the images can be immediately transmitted to mother earth and the Internet in near real-time. But you have still got the problem of manual counting of wildlife from the images. Or do you?

aerial surveys image by UAV

Aerial surveys image

A company in the USA called Vulcan, a tech company set up by the late Paul Allen of Microsoft fame, is using imagery supplied from a couple of our parks (and several others outside of Uganda) to “educate” their supercomputers to recognize and differentiate animals from imagery, so-called artificial intelligence.
Whilst this recognition software is still relatively in its infancy, it probably won’t take long for these computers to be far quicker and more accurate in performing this boring and repetitive task, two of the prime drivers of automation. Plus the cost will be much lower…

If the UAV’s are also fitted out with thermal equipment, individual heat signatures can be overlaid on to the standard JPEG photo to enhance accuracy, and probably even to allow night work to be done. So, from today’s processes as detailed above, in a few years’ time it looks likely that a cheap UAV, with almost limitless airtime between landings, will be flying pre-determined transects, photographing game with impossibly powerful cameras.

This data will be instantly geo-referenced, transmitted to a base receiver on mother earth, sent via the internet to the receiving computer, analyzed and the data made available in whatever spreadsheet format is required. Almost instantaneously.

old aerial serveys technology the aeroplane

As for Richard, he won’t have to think about that cold beer awaiting him at the end of a day’s flying for much longer. He will already be on the ground next to his redundant Cessna, beer in hand, watching the machine that has taken over his job flying overhead. Such is the relentless progress of technological advancement.

For more information on aerial surveys, please contact:

Uganda Conservation Foundation

22 Solent Avenue, Mbuya, Kampala. Tel: +256 (0) 414 692642. Email: info@ugandacf.org. Website: www.ugandacf.org

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/UgandaConservationFoundationUCF
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