Researchers are using satellites, AI to track and protect endangered elephants

Researchers are using AI and satellites to monitor endangered elephants.
Image: Maxar Technologies

Keeping endangered animals out of harm’s way is a major challenge. Poachers have a huge advantage when it comes to staying ahead of local wildlife authorities. That being said, new and emerging technologies are helping the good guys get ahead.

Researchers are using artificial intelligence (AI) and satellite imagery to help protect African elephants, Digital Trends reports. By counting the animals from outer space, scientists are able to better monitor their populations. The method is also much more efficient than counting elephants manually.

Population Monitoring

It’s astonishing to think about the fact that elephants can be seen from orbit. That is a testament to their size as well as the advancements made in the field of satellite imagery.

Currently, most elephant population surveys are done by counting the animals manually. Researchers examine aerial photos taken from planes and helicopters or simply ride along and count as they go. It’s not hard to see why keeping track of elephant populations is a difficult and time-consuming endeavor.

Researchers from the University of Oxford in the U.K. believed there had to be a better way. Indeed, it appears that the combination of satellites and AI is the answer. The team’s research is published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation.

Scientists used a data set containing satellite photos of 1,000 elephants in South Africa to train the artificial intelligence. The photos were taken by a Maxar Technologies Worldview-3 satellite. Deep learning methods from both TensorFlow API and Google Brain were used, according to Digital Trends. Ultimately, the AI was able to identify elephants with an accuracy rate comparable to human observers.

Using a measurement called the F2 score, researchers found that the AI could identify elephants with an accuracy between 0.78 and 0.73. Humans, for comparison, had scores of between 0.77 and 0.80.

Although the original AI model was only trained to identify adult elephants, it is now able to spot smaller ones as well.

Saving the Animals

Satellites are a great alternative to current counting methods because they are unintrusive. Rather than hovering a helicopter over a family of elephants, researchers can simply look at satellite images taken from afar and get the same results. As such, the animals aren’t disturbed.

Another benefit is that population counts can be taken across borders and in areas that are hard for people to reach. Many researchers encounter hassles at border crossings. Satellites are able to capture images across borders, making it possible to follow along with the elephants’ natural movement patterns.

Finally, the AI and satellite monitoring method is much cheaper than current alternatives. That helps conservationists re-allocate their tight budgets to areas that are more impactful without sacrificing data about elephant populations.

At this point, it’s unclear whether or not this concept could be used to track other endangered species. Most satellites wouldn’t be able to see smaller creatures or observe them in places where treetops obscure the ground from view.

That being said, new satellite imaging technology makes it possible to sidestep these obstacles. Perhaps one day it will be possible to monitor many more endangered species from orbit.


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