Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has teamed up with aviation leader Northrop Grumman and the Brevard Zoo to launch a new drone project or unmanned aircraft-based surveillance effort, to improve sea turtle conservation along Florida’s Space Coast.
New drone project aids sea turtle conservation in Florida
John M. Robbins, associate professor of Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle said that two different drone systems will be used in the Turtle Tech project to provide new conservation insights and paying jobs for students.
“Other researchers have used unmanned aircraft for sea turtle surveillance, but we’re fine-tuning the operations and computer visioning systems to identify individual sea turtles – including their species, gender and even unique markings,” Robbins said, according to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University News. “Students will have hands-on opportunities to work on flight operations, aircraft modifications, payload integration and much more. This project is a win-win for sea turtles and students.”
The Florida east coast is one of the most important breeding grounds for sea turtles, and although each nest may contain up to 100 or more eggs, it is estimated that only one in 1,000 to 10,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood.
“Florida plays a critical role in sea turtle conservation,” said Roddey Smith, a chief engineer and research fellow at Northrop Grumman. The state’s eastern coast is the most popular loggerhead nesting site in the world. The Space Coast also draws green sea turtles, massive leatherbacks, the Kemp’s Ridley and, a bit further to the south, the Hawksbill. “About 25% of the world’s overall sea turtle population is born here in Florida,” Smith noted. “Florida has outsized importance in maintaining different sea turtle species.”
The Turtle Tech project uses two different drones
The Turtle Tech project was launched with a grant from the Northrop Grumman Foundation and is administered by the Brevard Zoo. The two types of drones that will be used in the project are the DJI Matrice 210 and the Applied Aeronautics Albatross with vertical take-off and landing capability.
The fixed-wing Abatross drone can cover much larger areas and fly for up to four hours, whereas the DJI Matrice 210 excels in its ability to carry different payloads and provide higher resolution images.
“The Albatross will do the initial wide-area detection, and then, when we find turtles of interest, that’s when we would use the DJI platform to hover and look at identifying markers like scute patterns on a turtle’s carapace,” Smith explained.
Richard Beers, who serves as program and offshore lead for Northrop Grumman said that the two drone approach allows the team to populate a sea turtle database without having to capture and attach tracking devices to each animal.
“The idea is to use an optical platform for taking pictures and video across the ocean and use image-recognition software and other Artificial Intelligence and machine-learning type software to determine in real time whether an object within the image is a turtle or not,” Beers continued. “If it is a turtle, you want to mark the location, save that image, put it into meta-data and give it a certain ID.”
All the drone images will be fed into a computer-based ‘neural network’ that will continue to improve the accuracy of detection as the system will learn and progress over time as more images are added.
“The neural network is one of the areas where we’re departing from what other researchers are doing,” Richardson continued. “Often, researchers capture thousands of drone pictures and then spend hours sorting through all of them. With our neural network, we can feed images into a program that we’ve trained to automatically identify turtles. That will create a subset of turtles with meta-data, giving us the drone’s position. In that way, we can create a hot zone map for targeting future drone missions.”
“By flying at altitudes between 200 and 300 feet above ground level, the drones will remain high enough to ensure safety and avoid disturbing sea turtles, yet they will be close enough to capture high-resolution images,” Robbins said. “Drones are poised to revolutionize many aspects of marine science and conservation,” he added. “Advancements in UAS technology and Embry-Riddle’s strength in UAS research and Education will be key to the success of this project.”
Embry-Riddle faculty members involved in the Turtle Tech project include John Robbins, Kevin Adkins, Ilhan Akbas, Marc Compere, Patrick Currier, Nickolas Macchiarella and Ryan Wallace. The Northrop Grumman team includes Roddey Smith, Richard Beers, Christopher Akins, Joseph Poczatek and Justin Richardson. Keith Winsten serves as lead at the Brevard Zoo (East Coast Zoological Society of Florida).
Robbins emphasized that all drone work will be completed in strict compliance with U.S. Federal Aviation Administration rules, in keeping with Embry-Riddle’s intense aviation safety culture. Embry-Riddle, the world’s largest UAS educator, became the first academic institution to receive the Trusted Operation Program certification from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) in 2018.
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