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AI to aid bird conservation project at HK’s Penfold Park

Image Credits: South China Morning Post, News Report

As part of its pilot project for the conservation, the HKSAR Government has developed an AI-powered device with six eyes and the ability to hear and feel.

The system can identify, track and analyse birds at the park, one of the largest habitats for egrets in the city. The machine is shaped like a flower pot, packed with six cameras, sound and vibration sensors, and shielded from the elements by a glass dome.

The Drainage Services Department, which has a sewage treatment plant near the park, has been testing the system for almost a year to devise conservation measures for a project to relocate its facility to a nearby cavern.

It was noted that the Government has more work to accomplish to better monitor birds. The AI-powered tech allows for this over a longer duration and in all weather types, according to the engineer of the department’s sewerage projects division.

Observers have said the latest scheme was part of the government’s ongoing effort to encourage innovation and build a smart city.

The treatment plant is located less than 500 metres from the park and lies under the daily flight path of egrets.

The department invited a team at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to develop the tracking system, which now includes about 15 devices in and around the park, as well as a data centre.

The team has programmed the AI system to identify different species through deep learning, in which a myriad of pictures and 3D models of birds in various backgrounds are fed into its database.

The Associate Head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering noted that the system can now accurately identify a species more than 90 per cent of the time, as long as the bird was in full view. If part of the animal’s body is hidden from its cameras, the rate drops to 70 to 80 per cent.

However, the team is confident that with more observation, the accuracy will increase.

The device can also cross-check calls of different species and track the movement of an individual to avoid double counting when recording an inventory of a group of birds.

Species identified at the park include the great egret, little egret, Chinese pond heron, black-crowned night heron and grey heron. The department said it was unable to provide exact population figures as this was still under analysis.

It was noted that some behaviour unique to birds at the park had been observed. For instance, some appeared to be undisturbed by dogs barking – an unexpected behaviour as most birds are easily startled – because the area is frequented by dog walkers.

The AI system could collect data 24 hours a day over a long period of time, compared with human workers.

Using this comprehensive data set on waterbird populations and behaviours, the department will be able to develop impact mitigation measures. These include reducing the use of shiny materials and lowering construction noises when the animals are most active around the plant.

The pilot scheme is expected to conclude by the end of 2019 and the department will determine if the collected data matches an earlier survey conducted by a consultant.

The relocation aims to release a 28-hectare site for housing and community facilities. Developing caverns is one of eight ways that will be used to source land in the small city. It was recommended the governmental Task Force on Land Supply after a public consultation.

The first phase of the project began in February. It involves building roads to the proposed cavern and related protective works. In total, the project is expected to last over ten years.

The Hong Kong Birdwatching Society’s senior conservation officer stated that if proven accurate, the system will be useful when birds who nest in places or angles inaccessible to humans need to be observed, or when population numbers were too large to count manually.

An IT sector lawmaker stated that different government departments are exploring technologies like AI. For example, the Civil Engineering and Development Department has been using AI to identify dangerous slopes. This, the lawmaker noted, is a good sign as it proves that the government is making an effort to develop a smart city.

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