Remote Controlled Planes and Image Recognition Software Track Arctic Seals on Thin Ice

spotted seal pup photo

Photo by jomilo75 via Flickr Creative Commons

In a first-of-its-kind project, researchers from Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a joint venture of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are using cameras mounted to a remote controlled plane, called the Scan Eagle, to scan arctic areas monitoring seal populations as the ice levels decline. The project is keeping tabs on both the melting ice, and the animals to understand what impact warming temperatures are having on animals that rely on those frigid waters and ice floes. None of it would be possible without the latest technology in image recognition software. University of Colorado at Boulder reports that the team is concerned about four species of seals: bearded, spotted, ringed and ribbon seals. By figuring out what types of ice seals prefer to use for resting, breeding and safety, the team will know which ice to track and monitor as temperatures warm.

"Because ice is diminishing more rapidly in some areas than others, we are trying to focus on what areas and types of ice the seals need for their survival," said Peter Boveng, leader of the Polar Ecosystems Program at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

Owned and operated by the University of Alaska, the aircraft is complete with image recognition software from Boulder Labs, Inc so that it can automatically identify seals on ice floes. During flights in May and June of 2009, it collected 27,000 images that revealed to scientists that seals have specific preferences for types of ice. That increases the problems for seals as temperatures warm, since it's not just the amount of total ice, but their specific type, that is diminishing. For species like the ringed seal, which never comes ashore but depends on the ice for raising young, it could spell disaster.

The researchers hope that the new technology can help them better understand, and perhaps even help, seal populations at risk. But the key component is the image recognition software to identify where the seals are in the first place. Here's a video explaining the importance of the technology for this project:

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