Drones With Thermal Imaging Cameras Are Monitoring Endangered Orangutans

Ecologists are using drones to track endangered orangutans. Researchers used drones equipped with thermal cameras to count critically endangered orangutans in Borneo.

According to a study published on April 9, astrophysicists, ecologists, and conservationists conducted 28 drone flights over 6 days and spotted 41 orangutans in Sabah, Malaysia.

“In thermal images, animals shine in a similar way to stars and galaxies,” astrologist Dr. Claire Burke explained. “So we used techniques from astronomy to detect and distinguish them.”

The new method of using drones fitted with thermal imaging cameras can help scientists monitor populations of orangutans, which have declined from 230,000 to approximately 104,000 in the last 100 years.

Scientists conventionally estimated orangutan populations by trekking through forests and detecting nests built in trees. This method proved to be inefficient and costly. For this experiment, researchers worked in the morning and evening.

“During the evening, the forests cools down and detection—the heat difference become larger so detection goes up,” Professor Serge Wich explained. “In the morning, it’s best because the forest had all night to cool down, lost its heat, and then the animals really stand out and you can detect them very, very well.”

Researchers say they also spotted other primates and elephants. The team is developing a machine learning algorithm, to identify species using their specific heat signatures.