Researchers use thermal drones to count flying foxes

Researchers are using thermal drones to count flying foxes, a species that are listed as vulnerable to extinction due to a drop in numbers.

Researchers use thermal drones to count flying foxes

Researchers from Western Sydney University and the Taronga Conservation Society have teamed up to develop a new method of counting flying foxes with the help of thermal drones. A paper that was recently published in the journal Remote Sensing In Ecology and Conservation explains the new approach.

The accuracy of counting flying foxes, officially known as Pteropus poliocephalus, has been verified by traditional, repeated ground counts performed by multiple humans.

As part of the new counting method, the researchers also use advanced image detection techniques, including machine learning and computer vision methods to semi-automate flying-fox counts from the drone-acquired imagery, reports IT Wire.

“We can now use drones to obtain accurate and precise measures of colony abundance semi-automatically, thus greatly reducing the amount of human effort involved for obtaining abundance estimates”, said lead author and Master of Research graduate Eliane McCarthy at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment. “At present, there are two main methods for getting accurate counts of a flying-fox colony: during the day, when the flying-foxes are roosting and therefore quite static, or during the evening when they leave the roost to forage on nectar and fruit and can be counted as they depart the roost.”

Researchers Use Thermal Drones To Count Flying Foxes

“However, there are several issues in conducting ground surveys: the terrain can be difficult and physically challenging for counting personnel and their presence can disturb rooting flying-foxes, reducing the accuracy of the estimate,” Co-author Dr. John Martin, a research scientist at Taronga, said. “Fly-out counts rely on rapidly counting fast-moving animals at dusk when the light is fading, complicating these assessments.”

Researchers Use Thermal Drones To Count Flying Foxes
Drone photo takes of trees that house flying foxes.

Researchers Use Thermal Drones To Count Flying Foxes 1

Co-author, Associate Professor Matthias Boer, said: “We demonstrated that drone-acquired thermal imagery can be used to accurately and precisely quantify the abundance of flying-foxes in a roost, and that semi-automated methods for counting flying-foxes in thermal imagery are comparable to human assessments in their accuracy.”

Researchers Use Thermal Drones To Count Flying Foxes
A photo of the same trees but now taken with a thermal camera.

Researchers Use Thermal Drones To Count Flying Foxes 2

The remaining author, Associate Professor Justin Welbergen, added: “This method is very valuable for reliably monitoring the abundance of individuals in flying-fox roosts and will aid in the conservation and management of this globally threatened group of flying-mammals, as well as other warm-blooded tree-roosting species.”

You can read more articles about how drone are used to study here. And, here are even more articles about drones being used for good in different ways.

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Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ or @hayekesteloo.

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