Cape York indigenous rangers and Australian scientists are protecting turtles in far north Queensland by identifying and mapping nests and predators with drones, artificial intelligence and cloud computing.

The process saves hundreds of hours of manual work and is helping stabilise turtle populations in Cape York.

Feral pigs have been known to eat 100 per cent of turtle egg nest in some parts of western Cape York, killing around baby 2,000 turtles each year from one 50km stretch f beach.

Protecting the nests is challenging because of their remote location and difficulty knowing where and when they are being attacked by predators.

Cutting edge technology is being used to lessen the barriers by automating some of the monitoring, under a Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub project partnership between Cape York Indigenous rangers, the CSIRO and Microsoft.

‘AI For Good’

Tens of thousands of aerial surveys collected by drones and helicopters have been uploaded to Microsoft’s Azure cloud in order to develop an AI based image detection algorithm.

The algorithm allows the aerial imagery to be automatically analysed to detect terrain type, turtle tracks and predator tracks. Microsoft says the terrain identifier is already displaying 90 per cent accuracy while the turtle and predator object detector is “incrementally improving” its performance based on over 45,000 further images processed.

Rangers use drones to capture aerial images to identify nests and predators. Image: Supplied.

Rangers upload raw drone footage to Azure, which is automatically processed in the cloud, and analysis is returned to dashboards developed by the CSIRO using Microsoft’s BI platform.

Pig populations are tracked with drones and cloud computing in Cape York. Image: Supplied.

The tech giant says with its AI system, what normally takes one month of on-the-ground monitoring work can be achieved in just two hours.

“We can now monitor twice the length of the coast line in two hours instead of a month,” says Dr Justin Perry, a CSIRO research scientist

“This work has seen 20,000 hatchlings make it to the ocean every season. An entire ecosystem is being stabilised. New technology like AI is playing a vital role to bring turtles back from the brink of extinction.”

Kerri Woodcock, Biodiversity and Fire Program Manager for Cape York Natural Resource Management, said the indigenous led threatened species program is delivering quantitative outcomes.

“Rangers are monitoring not only the number of turtles that are coming in and laying, but also the amount of predation that’s happening and putting into place an adaptive predator control program to make sure that as many nests survive as they can.”

Lee Hickin, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Australia, said, “The prototype for this was developed in just a few weeks using a range of Azure services by a small Microsoft team working collaboratively with CSIRO and APN Cape York. Together the teams are using machine learning to train and refine the models.”

“The dashboard built by CSIRO and Microsoft overlays the insights from aerial footage onto existing data, allowing rangers on the ground to take rapid informed action to ensure the best outcomes.

“This is AI in action, AI for good.”

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