Australia: drones better at spotting Koalas than humans

Researchers from Queensland University of Technology in Australia have developed a new algorithm to help identify koala population numbers.

Traditionally, human spotters on the lookout for koalas are tasked with strolling through the bush, peering up at trees and keeping track of the numbers of koalas they see. This method, however, is slow, expensive and potentially disturbing for the animals.

How does it work?

The new surveying technique involves flying drones equipped with infrared cameras over bushland areas containing koalas. The research team developed an algorithm that identifies the unique heat signature emitted by the fuzzy marsupials. Koalas love to feast on eucalyptus trees and generally hang out beneath the forest canopy making normal aerial surveying difficult. The infrared cameras are able to see through the canopy and conduct surveys by passing up and down over a specific area of the bush in what is referred to as a “lawnmower pattern.” The cover image for this story shows gives an idea what the infrared camera ‘sees’ when it spots a koala beneath the canopy.

To ensure the technique had maximum effectiveness, the researchers flew test flights early in the mornings to ensure that the koala’s body temperature was likely to be the most different from that of the surrounding area.

How successful are humans at spotting koalas when compared to the drone?

When drone surveys of populations were tested against that from specially-trained human spotters, drones came out on top. Whereas humans are able to spot 70 percent of koalas in a given area, drone surveys achieved an 86 percent spot rate. Drones are also much faster: a UAV will take a couple of hours to survey an area that might take a human all day to do.

Koalas enjoy iconic status as a cuddly, chilled out Australia bear. Unfortunately, in some area of the country, factors like climate change and habitat destruction have them facing population declines. Conservations, therefore, need accurate population information to ascertain where best to apply their limited resources to sustain Australia’s koala population.

Koalas face population declines in multiple areas of Australia. Drones will help conservationists monitor their numbers more accurately.

This method was first trialled in 2016 and after finding success over the past few years it is likely to be used in other areas of Australia.

In recent years, drones have been adopted for many roles by conservationist and nature researchers. Drones were, on average, better at counting wildlife than people. That seems to have been the case here too.

The researchers behind this project have indicated that there will continue to be a role for human and dog koala spotters in future because there were some areas that were not practical for a drone to access.


Drones transport endangered bird semen in New Zealand

Drones are playing a vital role in preserving a critically endangered flightless parrot in New Zealand.

The kākāpō is a highly charming nocturnal bird and the world’s only flightless parrot. They typically live to be about 90, making them one of the longest living birds in the world. They are known to be very friendly, sometimes climbing onto and preening humans they encounter. Adult male kākāpō weigh between 4.4-8.8 lbs (2-4kgs).

Unfortunately for this lovely bird, there are only 147 of them left on Earth, making them highly susceptible to extinction. 60 million years of geographic isolation helped New Zealand become home to 16 species of indigenous flightless birds, the most famous of which is the Kiwi. These birds evolved in an environment with no land-based predators. The introduction of rats, cats, ferrets and so forth was devastating for New Zealand’s native bird species who had no defence against the introduced pests.

Fortunately, a concerted effort over the past several decades by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC), has seen the kākāpō avoid extinction and ever so slowly, rebuild its population.

The kakapo is critically endangered with less than 150 left alive in the world.

How are drones helping to preserve the kākāpō?

For the past decade, DOC has been using artificial insemination to increase the chances that kākāpō lay fertile eggs.

The DOC rangers use drones to transport semen from the male birds between different islands. In the past, it used to take several hours for rangers to trek from areas where they extracted ‘the goods’ to the female birds. With a Mavic Air, however, it takes just 10 minutes to transport the sample, making the chances of successful fertilisation much higher. Test flights showed that the semen was not affected during short-term flights and hopefully breeding efforts will continue to help this bird population recover.

Sheep Farming with Drones

When you traditionally imagine farm animals being rounded up, you picture cowboys on horseback wrastling cattle or border collies snapping at the heels of sheep.

It’s becoming increasingly popular, however, for farmers to send drones to help round up animals, particularly on high-country farms.

New Zealand, home to 25 million sheep and more than 10 million cattle, is a country already seeing farmers adopting drones to herd stock. One Kiwi farmer interviewed said he often uses his Phantom 4 Pro to drive the stock along valleys. The noise from the drones scares the sheep or cattle into moving.

The drones are deployed for about 25 minutes at a time, the batteries are replaced and they keep going. Farmers report that the benefit of using drones is the time saving it offers. A farmer can easily see the location of their animals, without having to travel there on horseback or quadbike.

Despite the new abilities provided by drones, as the farmer said to the ODT:

”You still can’t do it without your dogs.”

New Zealand has less than 5 million people and 25 million sheep. Not surprisingly, there are more than a few national sheepdog competitions in the country.

In a sheepdog trial, a dog with the guidance of their owner will corral a group of three sheep and direct them towards a  gate. The timer stops once the gate is shut. Some of these competitions are now allowing a new category: drones.

it’s interesting to note that drones are slowing taking over parts of the job that was once exclusively the domain of animals.

Drone surveying increases efficiency, lowers surveying costs, and reduces safety risks.

When you switch from traditional base-and-rover surveying to drone surveying on site, you are setting yourself and team up to make better, data-driven decisions. The efficiency of drones surveying allows you to shave days or weeks off typical surveying workflows. 

And since the drone is doing most of the work, you don’t need to send personnel out to walk a site or access dangerous areas. This alone reduces safety risks and speeds up data gathering. 

Further, drones are cheaper and simpler to use than traditional surveying equipment, so you don’t need to spend tens of thousands of pounds on hardware and you don’t need to have special training or education to capture site data. With instruction you can do it yourself or have a experienced drone pilot on site and on tap several days a week. You no longer have to wait for infrequent surveys or pay for something that’s not being used. You can update your data as often as you want to fly the site. 

With the right processing software and ground control, you can achieve survey-grade accuracy throughout your site. 

As you can imagine, the people who benefit from drone operations make up a long list including:

  • Site managers

  • Project managers

  • Engineers

  • Site supervisors

  • Head office personnel

  • Surveyors

  • Production managers

  • Accountants

  • Foremen

  • Chief estimators

  • Superintendents

  • Equipment operators

  • Safety officers

  • Owners and reps

Views for the USA

College graduation is just around the corner, which means thousands of young, tech-savvy graduates will soon enter the workforce. As new graduates search for careers, several will be eyeing opportunities that allow them to utilize their technical skills and offer high-growth opportunities.


With the “great crew change” arguably one of the biggest hurdles traditionally facing oil and gas operators, attracting new and young talent has been a major challenge for years. However today, drones are offering a surprising solution to help bridge the gap between seasoned vets edging towards retirement, and incoming green talent.

Solving the great crew change

For trusted oil and gas experts who have worked in the industry for years, adequately training an incoming younger, tech-raised employee can be daunting. However, new technology like drones equipped with aerial telepresence help benefit both new and seasoned workforce alike. With access to instant real-time visibility in the field from anywhere in the world, aerial telepresence allows experienced workers to better train and empower the incoming younger generation, while also promoting the use of some the most innovative tech to improve efficiency and safety.


When new, green talent enters the oil and gas industry, training is the first step to learning and understanding the day-to-day tasks of the job. But unlike traditional methods of training, today, experts are able to use drones to be more efficient during employee on-boarding. Using a drone, experts and new talent are able to simultaneously and in real-time get eyes on nearly every inch of the field, fast. What might have taken days to understand, large and often dangerous areas of terrain, including pipelines, well sites, and tanks, now only takes a few hours with the help of a drone. And with access to stored footage from cloud storage repositories, incoming younger workers are enabled to go back and gather insights from drone footage immediately after training sessions to help improve retention and understanding in the field

Smart technology, smart operations 

Today, the smartest oil and gas operators are utilizing drones to help reduce costs, drive operational efficiencies, and improve safety. For incoming workers, that can mean several opportunities to quickly learn and get ahead in the industry.

For example, drones enable experts to show incoming talent the ins-and-outs of crucial tasks like asset inspection. Instead of enduring hours of drives between well site pads, or walking pipelines, drones allow experienced employees and newcomers to navigate complex assets, while still pinpointing critical insights within minutes and from a safe location. With drones saving hours and even days of time on highly-manual and time-consuming jobs, experts and younger hires are freed up to focus on higher-impact areas of fieldwork, including how to maintain asset integrity, mitigate problems, or properly respond to a situation when something goes wrong — all helping to increase incoming workers’ efficiency, and safety while in the field.

Reducing costs

Additionally, are drones helping save organizations significant costs. Instead of deploying trucks, or helicopters to survey and inspect wide ranges of terrain, a drone can be launched within minutes for a fraction of the cost. And with added aerial visibility and intelligence, in the event of an alarm sound or emergency, a drone can quickly get eyes on a situation, and help operators and those who are less experienced better determine the right resources to manage a situation, instead of deploying tools that ultimately wouldn’t be needed.

Increasing safety for all

For less experienced workers, understanding the safety risks of the field is pertinent, and knowing how to respond to an emergency can help save resources and even lives. Luckily, smart operators are using drones for emergency response and helping to enhance situational awareness. With the ability to give incoming talent a first-hand and up-close look at an emergency, new workers are able to see exactly what’s needed to mitigate and fix an issue. For example, before operators make a decision to respond to an emergency like a fire, spill, or gas leak, operators can quickly deploy a drone to get aerial pictures of a site and make accurate decisions. And with real-time aerial visibility giving them a holistic view of an emergency, operators, and first-responders are able to turn to drones for enhanced situational awareness and pinpoint areas of danger instead of entering one blindly.

All team members can deploy a drone 

For oil and gas operators who might be considering starting a program, today’s technology makes it easier than ever to implement drones into daily operations. With functionality and features like geo-fencing and obstacle avoidance technology, nearly anyone — seasoned vet or incoming hire — can easily and safely deploy a drone to get a quick, detailed, and zoomed-in view of assets that may be hard to view, without worrying about crashing or destroying an asset. Additionally, by integrating enhanced technology like FLIR infrared and thermal cameras, seasoned operators can help less experienced workers better identify irregularities in the field, including hot spots that may cause dangerous situations like fires.

Today, drones are one of the keys to attracting and retaining top incoming talent. With the ability to enable trusted experts real-time visibility in the field from anywhere in the world to better train and empower the younger workforce, drones are providing new ways to help improve operational efficiencies, reduce costs, and increase safety. Offering opportunities for incoming talent to use innovative, new technology and help lead a new era of digitization and insights, while also getting a full, holistic understanding of oil and gas operations from seasoned vets, drone technology is not only a smart way to bring in new talent, but also helps bridge the gap between operators with legacy knowledge and driving green and ready-to-learn talent.


Many users establishing a drone workflow will focus on capturing basic photographs and video, and that can be a great starting place. You can turn those assets into highly effective deliverables—there are plenty of case studies that demonstrate how systems like this can be game changing for basic asset inspections.

However, many professionals don’t know how to take the technology to the next level, where they generate a three-dimensional model in the form of a point cloud or a mesh. For those not so familiar with this kind of reality capture, the workflow is an introduction to a whole new industry.

Doesn’t a point cloud cost too much?

The term “point cloud” might give some professionals a flashback to the “sticker-shock” moments from their laser scanning days, and that’s not surprising. In the past, point clouds required robust equipment as well as robust software to process, and that technology was cost prohibitive for many. It’s a technology that has been expensive for some time, so I understand anyone who is weary to jump in with it now on account of UAVs.

However, with the democratisation of UAVs and the technology that comes with it, surveyors, clients and many other professionals can now produce relatively high quality point clouds for a few hundred pounds. In many cases, professionals don’t even need to use lidar to generate a point cloud these day.

What do I need to know about accuracy?

As professionals dig deeper into this data, they’re beginning to see the true detail and accuracy of their new deliverable. Here are a few things to know:

  • It’s safe to say that adding ground control points will increase a project’s accuracy.

  • Point clouds from lidar offer high precision and incredible accuracy, sometimes to the millimeter.

  • Photogrammetric solutions use photos to extract 3D data, so the more photos of a site or a project, the better the detail. This requirement makes it obvious when not enough photos were taken of a specific point of interest. Without enough photos, the sharp edges or details appear rounded and almost have what I call a “lava” effect. Reflective surfaces such as heavy glazing on a building or water features can cause inaccuracies in the data as well. Without enough photos or with poorly captured photos, the data can quickly become severely distorted, making them good only for pure visualizations.

What about quality control?

This brings up the question of quality control. Remember, no solution is perfect and every type of capture requires some form of quality control.

When capturing data from a UAV, it’s essential to do a quality check of the main areas of interest. If the data does not seem as it should, reassess your capture techniques and determine if you have reached the limitation of the platform, which can tell you if another technique is required.

The importance of education

Drones might represent a reintroduction to point clouds for certain people, but they also require a re-education to the overall topic of reality capture. Reality capture and point clouds can have many varying levels of accuracy, depending on your approach and the technology you use.

Not attempting to understand reality capture technology may not have immediate effects, but as technology advances, the inexperience will add up. We are already seeing prominent UAV and lidar combinations entering the market, and though they are not currently as cost-effective as UAVs with a basic camera, their price point will continue to go down while the data they capture gets better. When the time comes for the market to switch from camera-based solutions to lidar-based, inexperience could put professionals below the bar and further increase the technology gap.

Test it out

The technology is available at big box stores for such a low price point, which makes it a must to at least “taste” to maintain a basic understanding of the market and where it is going. It’s important to know how the drone point cloud varies from a flown lidar point cloud, for instance, just as it is important to know how aerial capture varies from terrestrial or mobile capture, and how high-end, millimeter accuracy, terrestrial capture varies from the accuracy of introductory level terrestrial systems.

Conclusion: Big questions

UAVs are making existing practices easier, cheaper, and safer, but they’re also getting professionals to ask important questions about their projects. For instance—Does this project or site require millimeter-level accuracy, or will a UAV with a 20MP camera suffice?

Drones have made the case for reconsidering our reality capture techniques and understanding what our project needs. They are making us ask, “What is the right tool to accomplish those needs?” As reality capture professionals, we have so many new tools now that we can achieve our needs in many different ways. We just have to develop an understanding of our minimum requirements and our basic capabilities.

Views from Russia

Russsian defense contractor, Almaz-Antey, was recently awarded a patent for their shotgun-wielding drone. Almaz-Antey is a big player in the Russian arms industry. They are responsible for producing, among many armaments, some of the world’s most advanced surface-to-air missile systems.

The fixed-wing craft sports a Vepr-12 shotgun along with a 10-round magazine. It weighs 50 pounds (22.6 kg) and has a flight time of 40 minutes. Development of the drone began in 2016 and the craft is controlled by a visor-wearing operator who monitors the drone’s video link as well as sighting system.

Affixing a shotgun rather than a machinegun to the front of the drone was deliberate. Shotgun bullets disperse into tiny pellets making them more effective at hitting moving targets and therefore better for the presumed eventual purpose of shooting people.

The craft takes off and lands vertically from its tail (as seen in the cover image) but levels out and flies horizontally once it’s in the air. This takeoff method means the drone does not require minimal space to be deployed.

The three and a half minute video uploaded to YouTube (below) shows the extremely noisy drone zooming through the skies and blasting targets such as balloons out of the air. From what observe, the unnamed drone does not appear to experience much recoil as it shoots.