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Stanford University researchers have designed and used a unique drone system to survey penguin colonies in Antarctica.
Penguin colonies are important in tracking the state of global warming because they live in areas vulnerable to climate change. When surveying the penguins, scientists often get inaccurate data because the animals congregate in large groups.
To make surveying penguin colonies easier and more precise, the researchers used autonomous drones. The devices were programmed to fly over fixed paths and take images of areas with penguins. The researchers assembled the individual photos taken by the drones to get an accurate image of the colony and then counted the penguins one by one.
The researchers tested four drones at Cape Crozier and Cape Royds, which are home to two penguin colonies that together have 303,000 breeding pairs. In less than three hours, the drones were able to take 2,000 clear photos.
This task usually takes two days to carry out using helicopters or a single drone piloted by humans. Using helicopters produces good quality photos but is costly, fuel-inefficient, and produces sounds that can disturb the penguins. Using one drone is limiting because of its short battery life, and it is time-consuming and difficult to navigate.
In the future, the team plans to equip the drones with artificial intelligence to survey and count penguins simultaneously. Apart from surveying penguins, the researchers also think the drones could be useful for monitoring traffic and wildfires, assessing building damage, and mapping terrain.