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Counting Adélie penguin colonies with speedy, efficient drones

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It used to take research scientists over two days to survey these penguin colonies with helicopters and human-piloted drones. Thanks to an algorithm, automated drones can now survey 300,000 nesting pairs of Adélie penguins on Antarctica’s Cape Crozier in just three hours. This is a speedy and efficient feat that avoids the area’s weather challenges: brutal rain, wind, and snow. From Science Magazine:

Previously, scientists piloted single drones back and forth over swaths of land, similar to the way you might mow a lawn or shave a beard. But POPCORN, as the new algorithm is called, automatically sets the course for multiple drone to pass over the same area in just a fraction of the time, while avoiding collisions and meeting strict airspace regulations.

POPCORN is a cute acronym for Path Optimization for Population Counting with Overhead Robotic Networks.

Adélie penguins
Surveying the penguins is important because scientists can not only understand how well Adélie penguins are breeding and hunting, but the locations of these activities also inform us of how climate change is affecting the region. Watch this fascinating Science Magazine video: Speedy drones count Antarctic penguin colonies in record time.

The path-planning technology out of Stanford can be used for other uses, as well, including “traffic monitoring and tracking wildfires.”

“They’ve already performed tests in some varied settings. They have flown over a large ranch in Marin, California, to assess the vegetation available for livestock grazing. They also took their drones out to Mono Lake near the California-Nevada border to survey the California gull population that lives near Paoha Island in the lake’s center.”

watching Adélie colonies from above
What is an algorithm? A quick definition from Tynker:

An algorithm is a detailed step-by-step instruction set or formula for solving a problem or completing a task. In computing, programmers write algorithms that instruct the computer how to perform a task.

When you think of an algorithm in the most general way (not just in regards to computing), algorithms are everywhere. A recipe for making food is an algorithm, the method you use to solve addition or long division problems is an algorithm, and the process of folding a shirt or a pair of pants is an algorithm. Even your morning routine could be considered an algorithm!

drone survey
Watch penguin videos and more research drone videos:
• Humpback whales making ‘bubble nets’
• Thousands of sea turtles seen by drone in Costa Rica
• Drones reveal close encounters between young white sharks and beachgoers
• Drones help scientists study Guatemalan volcanoes

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