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Drones Help Scientists Spot Australia's Endangered Koalas

  • George Putic

Small endangered animals are often hard to find in their natural habitats, making it difficult for scientists to monitor them and develop conservation plans. But new technologies can help. Australian researchers have equipped flying drones with infrared cameras so they can spot koalas hiding high in trees.

Koalas spend most of their lives in eucalyptus trees, whose leaves are their favorite food. Since the leaves are low on calories and nutritional content, koalas are not very active - they sleep up to 20 hours a day. Curled-up in high branches, they are not easy to spot from the ground, and they have few natural predators. The greatest threat to this iconic symbol of Australia is logging.

“Every single tree in Australia right now, needs to be protected and unless that happens I can promise you the koala is going to go to extinction,” said Deborah Tabart, Australian Koala Foundation.

Scientists studying koalas say one of the keys for saving the animals is to know where they live and how many of them are left.

Using drones fitted with infrared cameras to conduct a census was an untested concept. Queensland Institute of Technology technician, Gavin Broadbent, said they were skeptical at first. “But when we saw the images come through, we saw the koalas were very distinct compared to the trees and the environment. So we thought, yes this is absolutely a proof of concept that could work,” he said.

The images beamed back to a computer clearly show the animal’s position, even from a distance far enough away not to disturb its sleep.

“We have tested at 20 meters and 80 meters. At 20 meters we get really good resolution,” stated Felipe Gonzalez, project leader.

The remotely controlled camera pivots and swivels, so scientists can scan the trees from all angles, picking out koalas even in the most dense areas, not visible to researchers on foot.

“So this will drastically reduce the manpower," said Amber Gillett, a veterinarian with the Australia Zoo. "Will greatly increase the area that can be covered to survey koalas and in areas where people may not be able to walk through because of dense undergrowth.”

Scientists say it is now clear that drones with infrared cameras can be used for spotting, and perhaps saving, other animals in the wild.