Adélie penguins live in one of the planet’s harshest environments — Antarctica.
While cold and inhospitable, Antarctica is threatened by climate change. Understanding how the climate affects penguins is essential to their conservation — but it is also incredibly tricky.
Population density, nest size, and birth rates offer clues to how well the penguins are doing. Aerial photos and videos can reveal these things in detail.
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Scientists tend to rely on single drones or helicopters to collect these images, but it's inefficient. Constraints on battery life and other factors mean colony-wide surveys take a long time, and may be inaccurate.
A new study published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics proposes a solution, using swarms of autonomous drones and an algorithm called POPCORN (Path Optimization for Population Counting with Overhead Robotic Networks).
Instead of flying back and forth over a penguin community like a Roomba, these drones are designed to work in sync to cover the most area in the least amount of time.
To do this, researchers start by identifying a flyover area, for example, a penguin community. They then choose the starting and ending point of the flight path and POPCORN calculates an optimal route in the form of a lattice.
The drones' path is designed to take them to the furthest side of the area first, before slowly circling back to the point they entered at.
The images and videos captured using this method are not only scientifically important, but also stunningly beautiful.
The team completed full surveys of penguin communities in just three hours using four drones — a massive improvement from the old method, which took up to 2 days.
In this study, they completed 10 surveys.
The drones took over 2,000 photos which were then stitched together into high-resolution panoramas of the penguin communities.
In future studies, ecologists can use these images to study penguin breeding and population density.
"Humans could never leap into the sky and count 300,000 penguins or track a forest fire," said Mac Schwager, a lead author on the study and assistant professor at Stanford, in a statement.
"I think that teams of autonomous robots can really be powerful in helping us manage our changing world, our changing environment, at a scale that we never could before."