Drones and artificial intelligence show promise for conservation of farmland bird nests

Every spring, a large number of ground-nests of farmland birds are accidentally destroyed by mechanical operations, such as ploughing and sowing. A new study from the University of Helsinki shows for the first time that such nests can be located using a drone in combination with artificial intelligence.

Farmland bird species are declining over most of Europe. Birds breeding on the ground are particularly vulnerable because they are exposed to mechanical operations, like ploughing and sowing, which take place in spring and often accidentally destroy nests. 

Locating nests on the ground is challenging for the human eye, and highly time-consuming

Lapwing

A Lapwing on an agricultural field whose nest may be accidentally destroyed during farming operations in spring. Photo credit: Hans Hillewaert.

Researchers flew a drone carrying a thermal camera over agricultural fields to record images. These were then fed to an artificial intelligence algorithm capable of accurately identifying nests, a first step to aid their protection. Researchers tested the system in Southern Finland near University of Helsinki’s Lammi Biological Station, using wild nests with eggs of the Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

“We have been involved in conservation of ground-nesting farmland birds for years, and realized how difficult it is to locate nests on the ground. At least at high latitudes, the temperature of these nests is typically higher than that of the surrounding environment. Hence, we thought that thermal cameras could assist. A small pilot study indicated that thermal vision is hampered by vegetation and objects on the ground. Therefore, to make this an efficient system, we thought that the camera could be flown using a drone, and artificial intelligence could help to analyse the resulting thermal images. We show that this works. However, the system performed best under cloudy and cold conditions, and on even grounds,” says Andrea Santangeli, an Academy of Finland fellow at the Finnish Museum of Natural History Luomus, University of Helsinki.

Drone technology becoming rapidly popular in conservation 

It is possible to map in near real-time the spread of diseases on crops in agricultural areas using drones with various sensors. The latter is an integral part of precision agriculture, a new way of crop production that makes large use of drone technology to monitor crops and maximize production efficiency.

Scanning bird nests by drones

futuristic application of the study outcomes for near real-time detection and protection of farmland birds’ nests in agricultural fields. Such fields are scanned by drones interfacing with artificial intelligence to inform the operating system of the tractor of the presence of a nest to be avoided. Image credit: Andrea Santangeli and John Loehr.​​​​​​​

Studies like this one can help pave the way to integrate bird nest detection within the drone borne sensors used in precision agriculture, and automate a system for saving those nests. 

“The conservation community must be ready to embrace technology and work across disciplines and sectors in order to seek efficient solutions. This is already happening, with drone technology becoming rapidly popular in conservation. A next and most challenging step will be to test our system in different environments and with different species. Our auspice is that this system will be, one day, fully integrated into agricultural practices, so that detecting and saving nests from mechanical destruction will become a fully automated part of food production,” says Santangeli.

Original article: 

Andrea Santangeli, Yuxuan Chen, Edward Kluen, Raviteja Chirumamilla, Juha Tiainen, John Loehr. Integrating drone-borne thermal imaging with artificial intelligence to locate bird nests on agricultural land.  DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-67898-3