Australian research project uses drones to protect koala bears

By Patrick C. Miller | August 02, 2017

Australian koala bears will be monitored and protected by unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flown by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology.

The two-year project will use high-resolution imagery from drones to locate and track koalas in southeastern Queensland Province. The information will be used to help estimate koala populations, monitor their health and make effective conservation decisions to protect them.

Grant Hamilton with QUT’s science and engineering faculty is leading the project which will use UAS technology as a surveying method to detect the koalas and estimate their numbers.

“Understanding the abundance of a species in an area is fundamental to the management of that species—and the more regularly and accurately you can monitor the health of the population, the better,” he said.

As Hamilton explained, the project’s primary emphasis is on the ecology of koala conservation. Drones and automated imaging technology will be used as tools to assist in the effort.

“Through the use of drones we will be able to better locate our native fauna, and to get more accurate estimates of their abundance that we need to make effective conservation decisions,” he said.

Hamilton said the project was a world-first in developing a robust methodology that uses drones to estimate numbers, accounting for errors in detection. The results can then be deployed to protect other ecosystems. 

The project combines data analytics and automated identification and involves Simon Denman from QUT’s School of Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Vision and Signal Processing. 

Steven Miles, minister for environment and heritage protection, said the project was part of a strategy to protect and boost koala numbers in southeast Queensland. 

“We have committed an additional $12.1 million for koala conservation as well as a further $2.6 million per annum of ongoing funding for koala protection,” he noted.. “We’ve also invested $6 million in wildlife hospitals that take care of our sick or injured koalas.”