Embry-Riddle researchers use drones to track invasive pythons in the Everglades

An unknown number of invasive Burmese pythons, some up to 18 feet long, are creeping into the Florida Everglades, eluding wildlife workers seeking to manage their population. Through a research partnership between Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Warren County Community College, a new tool to identify and track snakes is being developed.

The tool of choice for researchers: drones.

“We’ve identified invasive species of Burmese pythons in South Florida as a big problem,” said Dr. Joe Cerreta, associate professor at Embry-Riddle’s. College of Aeronautics, as well as the Principal Investigator of the research. “Agencies tasked with finding these species are really looking for new detection methods.”

Pythons have damaged local populations of native wildlife. Working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the South Florida Wildlife Management District, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the research team uses unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) equipped with various technologies to monitor snakes from the sky.

First, the team started with cameras. Supported by a start-up grant from the faculty, they fitted drones with an array of camera sensors to determine if snakes can be visually detected by UAS flying overhead at different altitudes. Images taken by near-infrared cameras were then compared to images captured by traditional RGB cameras.

“We learned a lot about the difficulty of detecting pythons that are not exposed,” Cerreta said. “The exposed snakes are detectable with a UAS; however, unexposed snakes, especially those hidden in tall grass, are very difficult to detect.

The findings of the expedition – the first undertaken by the researchers – were promising, however, especially since the current detection rate of biologists without the use of drones is estimated to be less than 0.05%. Currently, their only method of detection is radio beacons, ground camera systems, and trackers.

“We learned that we could equip a UAS with a radio receiver to move faster through areas with radio-tracked snakes and then use our camera sensors,” Cerreta said. “There’s so much learning to do that we’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding how to solve this problem.”

Biologists on site for the work brought two python carcasses and a live python, a 10-foot female, to place in various locations and use to collect field data. Future grant funding will be used to add more drones to the fleet and increase their research capabilities, such as advancing camera systems, equipping the UAS with radio receivers, and incorporating artificial intelligence capabilities ( IA) to automate the detection process.

With increased reliability, the technology could also be used to detect various types of wildlife in other locations, Cerreta said.

“We were looking for an opportunity to do applied research with UAS, so that we could expand our faculty knowledge to later bring into the classroom to introduce students to real-world issues,” he said. he adds. “A student project focused on python detection is entirely possible.”

However, learning opportunities are not exclusive to students in the Bachelor of Science in Unmanned Systems Applications or Master of Science in Unmanned Systems program at Embry-Riddle Global Campus. Computer science and technology students can also participate in the development of the AI ​​system.

Teamwork is the source of a dream job

In addition to being president of Warren College, New Jersey, Dr. Will Austin (’21) is also an alumnus of Embry-Riddle. He holds his master’s degree in unmanned systems and then plans to start the graduate certificate program in space operations in March.

“Participating in Embry-Riddle has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life,” said Austin. “Exposing my own students to such an education is a highlight of my career.”

Teachers from both institutions work closely together to share knowledge, equipment and training procedures. The collaboration has been initiated to benefit both research and the student experience.

“This partnership is the best I’ve ever heard of between a community college and a university,” Austin added. “For many community college students, the next step toward a university can be daunting, but meeting future instructors early — especially when some of those instructors have also taught their current college president — makes students very confident. comfortable and excited about transferring to a university that will value Warren as much.

The work will also eventually extend to residential campuses in Embry-Riddle.

“This project is important not only for what it can accomplish in wildlife ecosystems, but also for what it means for community university-college partnerships as a whole,” said Dr. David Thirtyacre, chair of the department of Embry-Riddle’s Worldwide flight. Campus. “The emerging field of UAS is the perfect place to foster this kind of mutually beneficial relationship, and this project is just the beginning.”

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