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Protecting Koala Population Via Drones and VR

Koalas

A combination of virtual reality (VR), aerial thermal-imaging and ground surveys were used to build a better statistical model for predicting the location of koalas and, ultimately, protecting their habitat.

As reported, researchers from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers (ACEMS) developed a model that could be used to identify areas most likely to be home to koalas, which are facing population decline.

They used the mashup of high-tech 360-degree imagery and heat-seeking drone cameras along with traditional techniques of ground surveys.

Lead author Dr Catherine Leigh, who is also an Associate Investigator with ACEMS, explained that using the multi-pronged approach greatly increased the accuracy of the statistical model.

Building a model with all of that data gives a much better idea about where the koalas are likely to be.

Predicting where the koalas are and the types of habitats they hang around in provides knowledge on where to monitor them and which areas needed protection.

About the Initiative

In the study, the researchers used ground survey information captured between 2012 and 2017 from Alexander Clarke Park in Loganholme, south-east Queensland.

This is an area that has vegetation ranging from dense forest to grass fields and contains facilities including playgrounds and a dog park.

One of the challenges with ground survey observations was that they could show a statistical bias of higher koala populations close to paths and other areas easily accessible by observers.

However, when out in a field, an experienced koala observer or a citizen scientist will be restricted from where to walk.

Add to that how koalas are hard to see, even by trained observers as they are slow-moving and often hidden high in the canopy.

To counteract that, the researchers surveyed the area from the air using thermal cameras near sunrise, when the body heat of the koalas is detectable against the surrounding foliage.

The third part of the study involved sending researchers out to some of the 82 specific locations in the area, where koalas were known to either be or not be, to take 360-degree images.

Those images were then shown to a panel of koala experts wearing VR headsets, with the experts asked to state how likely the environment they were viewing in was ‘good koala habitat’.

Benefits

The advantage of using VR for the survey was it enabled them to bring the environment to the experts rather than having to take the experts to the field.

A lot of the research done on immersive experiences suggests that it helps to bring back the memories associated with when that expert has been in the field in the past.

This will allow them to be more cognizant of making the decision about the likelihood that a koala would be there.

The researchers found that the three-pronged system of VR-prompted expert information, thermal imagery and ground surveys proved to be 75% more accurate at predicting koala locations than ground surveys alone.

The methods could be used by councils and town planning authorities to obtain critical information needed for koala protection.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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