Home Science & Space Multi-drone system autonomously surveys penguin colonies

Multi-drone system autonomously surveys penguin colonies


Stanford University researcher Mac Schwager went into the world of penguin counting through a chance meeting at his sister-in-law’s wedding in June 2016. There, he learned that Annie Schmidt, a biologist at Point Blue Conservation Science, was seeking a better way to image a big penguin nest in Antarctica. Schwager, who is an assistant teacher of aeronautics and astronautics, saw a chance to collaborate, provided his work on controlling swarms of autonomous flying robotics.

That’s how, three-and-a-half years later, Schwager’s graduate student, Kunal Shah, found himself at the popular McMurdo Station, all set for the first Antarctic test flight of their brand-new multi-drone imaging system, which collaborates the flight of multiple high-end self-governing drones– however can likewise deal with hobby drones.

The job did not have an auspicious start. “My hands were freezing. The drone batteries were too cold to work. The drone push-button control was too cold. My phone was too cold and was flashing cautions,” recalled Shah. “I simply thought, ‘I’m down here for two-and-a-half months and this is day one?”

Undeterred, Shah and his coworkers quickly adjusted and their system, which is the subject of a paper released Oct. 28 in Science Robotics, consistently produced in-depth visual studies of roughly 300,000 nesting sets of Adélie penguins over a 2-square-kilometer area at Cape Crozier– approximately equivalent to the size of the country of Monaco– and another smaller colony of about 3,000 nesting sets at Cape Royds. Whereas previous human-piloted drone studies of the Cape Crozier nest took 2 days, each round of the brand-new study, finished in partnership with National Science Structure (NSF) and U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), was completed in about two-and-a-half hours, thanks to a path preparation algorithm that coordinated two to four autonomous drones and focused on efficient coverage of the nest.

“Simply moving all of that devices to a remote site and being able to prepare it, field it and release it with absolutely nothing other than camping tents and a little warming hut available, that’s really remarkable,” stated Schwager, who is senior author of the paper however, to his dissatisfaction, was not able to join the field team. “It actually goes to demonstrate how useful self-governing robotic systems can be in remote environments.”

Speed is vital

Aerial studies of penguin colonies have been conducted before, normally with helicopters or a single drone. The helicopter approach produces great image quality but is pricey, fuel-inefficient and risks interrupting the birds. The single drone survey is lengthy and– due to the fact that the drones should be released from a safe distance, about five kilometers (3 miles) from the colony– hard to browse. Another drawback of drones is that they should fly to, over and back from the colony with only 12-15 minutes of battery life. The constant threat of unexpected changes in flying conditions further adds to the significance of a fast study.


Making use of multiple drones circumvents these challenges, and it was enabled by a distinct path preparation algorithm developed by the Stanford scientists. Provided a survey space, the algorithm separated the space, appointed location points to each drone and figured out how to move the drones through those points in the most effective method, limiting backtracking and redundant travel. One essential additional requirement was that each drone exit the space at the same location where it got in, which conserves valuable flight time. The algorithm likewise kept a safe, constant, distance from the ground regardless of the changes in elevation, and had a tunable image overlap portion to assure a total study. Unlike the back-and-forth action of a robotic vacuum, Schwager explained the algorithm’s courses as “organic and spidery.”

“The process was quick. What had been just the algorithm’s squiggles on a screen the day before developed into an enormous image of all the penguins in the colonies,” said Shah, who is lead author of the paper. “We could see individuals walking the colonies and all the private birds that were nesting and pertaining to and from the ocean. It was unbelievable.”

Eyes in the sky

The scientists imagine other uses for their multi-drone system, such as traffic monitoring and tracking wildfires. They have actually currently performed tests in some different settings. They have flown over a large cattle ranch in Marin, California, to assess the vegetation readily available for livestock grazing. They also took their drones out to Mono Lake near the California-Nevada border to survey the California gull population that lives near Paoha Island in the lake’s center. Like Antarctica, the Mono Lake test had its own obstacles– the birds were smaller, the scientists had to boat out to the website before launching the drones and there was a threat of losing drones in the water (which, fortunately, did not occur).

For their part, the penguin biologists stay focused on measuring population size, birth rates and nesting density and will conduct a second round of penguin observation this year. Due to the pandemic, nevertheless, the Point Blue Conservation Science team will be on their own this time.

Considering the big photo– in the metaphorical sense– the scientists hope their system stands as proof for the favorable capacity of autonomous robots and systems.

“People might never ever leap into the sky and count 300,000 penguins or track a forest fire,” said Schwager. “I believe that groups of self-governing robots can actually be effective in assisting us manage our altering world, our changing environment, at a scale that we never might before.”

The researchers from Point Blue Conservation Science are also co-authors of the paper. This work was moneyed by the National Science Foundation.



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