Environment Researchers use drones and AI to help endangered dugongs

Researchers use drones and AI to help endangered dugongs

They’re the cows of our oceans – plump, placid and peacefully grazing on grasses in shallow sea waters.

But dugongs are also in grave danger, facing a range of threats, including the loss of their vital sea grass habitats which has left them critically endangered.

Now the notoriously shy ‘sea cows’ are getting a helping hand – from Australian researchers who are combining AI and drones to help find and conserve the marine mammal.

Dr Amanda Hodgson from Murdoch University is using a high-end drone to spot dugongs in Western Australia’s Shark Bay region.

“To help conserve dugongs, we need to understand where their important habitat areas are, so we can push for their protection,” Dr Hodgson says.

“We also need to gain an understanding of whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing.”

But manually sifting through 37,000 drone images is labour intensive and time consuming.

That’s where artificial intelligence comes in.

Working with Dr Frederic Maire from Queensland University of Technology, the duo has developed an algorithm powered by Google to sift through thousands of images.

The AI detector picks out anything it thinks looks like a dugong, and then a human goes through potential detections to pick out the mammals.

“Google’s machine learning package helped Frederic develop a learning computer algorithm that is saving us time and money in detecting the dugongs in the surveys,” Dr Hodgson says.

“We estimated it would take 377 hours to go over each of the images manually. But this technology is helping us to do it with a decent degree of accuracy in just 18 hours.”

The techniques used to develop the Dugong Detector could also be applied to different species in a range of different habitats, heralding a new era in ecosystem monitoring.

Google are backing the project, with Dr Hodgson winning $250,000 from the global tech giant to monitor seagrass ecosystems.

“Monitoring dugongs is a great way to keep an eye on seagrass health, because you don’t get one without the other,” Dr Hodgson says.

“Seagrass is one of the most vital habitats in the world, supporting more than half the world’s fisheries and feeding three billion people, so it’s important to be able to monitor its health on a large scale.”

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