Using Swiss AI and drones to count African wildlife

After a promising first run in Namibia, a Swiss project could aid savanna conservation using drones and automatic image analysis.

To get a sense of how many animals live in a given area, game counts are typically done in real time by sharp-eyed people in vehicles. A project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) uses drones and artificial intelligence (AI) to count wild animals more efficiently. 

“Human eyes are very good at detecting animals, but not at screening countless images. Computers can process a lot more data,” explains Swiss geo-information specialist Devis Tuia, who received a personal grant from SNSF to form a lab to improve wildlife monitoring methods in places like Namibia. 
During the four-year project, which wrapped up last month, Tuia and his team built an AI system to detect animals photographed by cameras mounted on drones.

Savannah grasslands are too dry to sustain many trees, which makes them well-suited for drone exploration. Despite the annual wet season, overgrazing and unsustainable water usage can exacerbate droughts – causing wildlife to suffer.

The Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve in Namibia served as the test site for the Swiss project, and student researchers flew drones overhead to photograph the entire reserve in 2014 and 2015. The drones collected about 150 photos per square kilometre; the next step was sorting the images featuring animals like oryx, kudu and zebra. 

This initial phase of elimination and sorting was the longest and most painstaking. Now, with a high level of accuracy, an algorithm can flag images containing animals and discard those without. 

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