Photo: © Samuel Blanc / www.sblanc.com
Spotting seals from the air can be harder than finding a needle in a haystack. And Arctic storms can make it a lot more dangerous.
But now, an unmanned aircraft equipped with cameras is being used to observe sea ice coverage and monitor seal populations in the far north. The drone is much cheaper to use than manned aircraft. It also eliminates the dangers to pilots and scientists flying in the fierce conditions of the Arctic.
Advanced facial-recognition software makes the use of these planes possible, since the same software can also identify seals on the ice. The software was developed by Boulder Labs Inc.
The project is lead by Elizabeth Weatherhead, senior scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), a joint venture of the University of Colorado-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"By finding the types of ice they prefer, we can keep track of that ice and see how it holds up as the Arctic sea ice extent shrinks," said Weatherhead in a University of Colorado press release.
The drone, named Scan Eagle, has a 10-foot wingspan. It flies at altitudes from 300 to 1,000 feet for up to eight hours. During Scan Eagle's three- to five-mile flights over the Bering Sea it can capture thousands of images.
"Biologists are thrilled about the image recognition software because it could change the way we monitor seal populations," said Weatherhead. "We can send an unmanned craft out from a ship, collect 4,000 images, and have them analyzed before dinner."
The software can be altered to allow researchers to look for polar bears and other arctic creatures too. Also, having more information about the disappearance of sea ice will allow scientists to better understand how climate change is affecting the arctic.
Polar Bears : Discovery News
Would you like to try you hand at playing "Where's Waldo" with the seals? CIRES has a set of images to challenge your seal spotting abilities.
Try this one:
Could you find it? Here it is!