September 30 is Save the Koala Day, and to raise awareness and support for our much-loved national icons, we are shining light on how the NSW Government is leveraging digital technology to assist in doubling our states koala population by 2050.
Under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, koalas are listed as a vulnerable species, with a steady decline in NSW. Without accurate analysis, reports suggest koalas will be extinct in NSW within 30 years, unless urgent action is taken.
The Drone Biodiversity Hub project is proudly supported by the Digital Restart Fund. An investment of $2.3 million dollars has been contributed, supporting the project led by the Department of Planning and Environment as it aims to provide greater insight, data and analysis of our wildlife populations to better guide conservation projects across NSW. The project features heat seeking drones to survey wildlife, and new digital technologies incorporating thermal infrared sensors to provide insights and access to data. Senior Research Scientist with the Department of Planning and Environment, Dr Adam Roff said 'we find twice as many koalas as we do using traditional techniques, with half the cost'.
Equipped with thermal infrared and colour cameras, the drones are operated when ambient temperatures are cool to ensure thermal cameras are scanning effectively. When the drones detect a signal, they record the GPS location and pause to determine the target. Smaller signals typically indicating smaller wildlife such as possums or bats. If more detail is needed for species identification, the drone can automatically descend to capture high resolution imagery of the species.
The department's costs have been reduced, with the unit cost per drone being reduced with the addition of further drones to the fleet. This has led to further capability and performance benefits. The fleet managed by the Science, Economics and Insights Division has expanded to 15 drones (and counting), currently costing around under $10,000 dollars per drone. A single drone can survey between 100 to 200 hectares a night as they travel at 30km/h. Even better they never get tired.
Another key element is the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enable automatic detection of the species the drones detect. 'We plan to make our autonomous flight programs and trained AI fully operational and publicly available so that the method can be applied consistently across NSW. All that we will need is people to launch and monitor the drones', said Dr Roff. The team are in the process of training new pilots for the expanding fleet of drones. So far they have put 28 pilots through the intensive 6 week training curriculum.
The project directly supports a key NSW government initiative and Ministerial priority to double koala numbers across the state and supports the NSW Koala Strategy as one of several survey detection methods being piloted. Koalas are recognised around the world as one of Australia's most iconic animals. Koalas have intrinsic value and contribute to nature-based tourism that is worth as much as $20 billion per year to New South Wales.
Sightings of koalas and other fauna will be made publicly available and tracked in real-time with a digital dashboard. The project is partnering with industry and community, with exciting updates to follow over the coming months.
Find out more about Heat seeking drones supporting koala science