Drone Project Takes Sea Turtle Conservation To New Level

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Daytona Beach, FL - Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is teaming up with aviation leader Northrop Grumman and the Brevard Zoo in order to launch a brand new sea turtle conservation effort.

And the combined effort between the three is known as the Turtle Tech Project, which will utilize two different unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to provide crucial conservation insights on top of providing paying jobs for students according to associate professor of Aeronautical Science at ERAU, John Robbins.

“Other researchers have used unmanned aircraft for sea turtle surveillance, but we’re fine-tuning the operations and computer visioning systems to identify individual sea turtles – including their species, gender and even unique markings,” Robbins said. “Students will have hands-on opportunities to work on flight operations, aircraft modifications, payload integration and much more. This project is a win-win for sea turtles and students.”

The project also couldn't have been hosted in a better area as well, since Florida's east coast is a popular nesting site for different types of sea turtles, including loggerheads. Then, down the Space Coast you'll find other types of turtles including green sea turtles, massive leatherbacks, the Kemp’s Ridley and, a bit further to the south, the Hawksbill.

“About 25% of the world’s overall sea turtle population is born here in Florida,” said Roddey Smith, a chief engineer and researcher at Northrop Grumman. “Florida has outsized importance in maintaining different sea turtle species.”

Unfortunately, while Florida's Atlantic coast is host to a plethora of sea turtle species, it is also host to dangers that also affect sea turtles. Because of common risk factors, estimates suggest that only one in 1,000 to 10,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood.

In fact, most species are threatened or endangered by natural threats and human threats – which includes small animals, artificial lighting, sea walls, erosion, beach driving, etc. And it's because of those common dangers that species like the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle are now critically endangered. In fact, Volusia County has only recorded 14 Kemp's Ridley nests since 1996. 10 of those nests were laid by three turtles.

But, that's where the new partnership comes in. Thanks to a grant from the Northrop Grumman Foundation, which was administered by the Brevard Zoo, ERAU plans to use two types of unmanned aircraft for the Turtle Tech Project. Those aircraft are the Applied Aeronautics Albatross with vertical take-off and landing capability, and the DJI Matrice 210.

According to ERAU, the DJI will be able to carry multiple payloads and capture finer-grain images of sea turtles while the lightweight and fixed-wing Albatross can cover more ground for a longer period of time – about four hours.

“This sequential approach will allow the team to populate a sea turtle database – without having to capture and attach tracking devices to each animal,” said Richard Beers, who serves as program and offshore lead for Northrop Grumman.

Beers later commented further and said that the idea is to use an optical platform for taking pictures and video across the ocean and use image-recognition software and other artificial intelligence and machine-learning type software to determine in real time whether an object within the image is a turtle or not.

 “If it is a turtle, you want to mark the location, save that image, put it into meta-data and give it a certain ID," said Beers.

“We see this project as solving real-world problems,” said Keith Winsten of the Brevard Zoo. “It’s great to build a bridge and put an egg on it, but what are these sea turtles doing in the surf and how does that affect their conservation? That’s the real-world question we need to answer.”

Embry-Riddle faculty members involved in the Turtle Tech project include John Robbins, Kevin Adkins, Ilhan Akbas, Marc Compere, Patrick Currier, Nickolas Macchiarella and Ryan Wallace. The Northrop Grumman team includes Roddey Smith, Richard Beers, Christopher Akins, Joseph Poczatek and Justin Richardson. Keith Winsten serves as lead at the Brevard Zoo (East Coast Zoological Society of Florida).

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