At first glance the fact that the University of Bath was able to track and count Earth’s largest land mammal from space doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it kind of is.
The reason for this is that the only reason that this was possible was thanks to several advancements in technology.
Using the Worldview 3 satellite, along with an algorithm developed by Dr Olga Isupova, researchers were able to track African elephants moving across forests and grasslands with the same level of accuracy as humans.
The benefit here is that a satellite can cover far more ground than human observers in a low-flying aircraft. It also has the benefit of not disturbing animals as researchers count animals.
“This type of work has been done before with whales, but of course the ocean is all blue, so counting is a lot less challenging,” explains Isupova. “As you can imagine, a heterogeneous landscape makes it much hard to identify animals.”
With the African elephant classified as an endangered species, being able to count and track the species easily, can help conservationists prevent the extinction of a species.
The hope here is that this solution can be used to trace other species around the world.
“Satellite imagery resolution increases every couple of years, and with every increase we will be able to see smaller things in greater detail,” said Isupova.
“Other researchers have managed to detect black albatross nests against snow. No doubt the contrast of black and white made it easier, but that doesn’t change the fact that an albatross nest is one-eleventh the size of an elephant,” the researcher added.
The full team of researchers involved in the project were Dr Olga Isupova from the University of Bath, Isla Duporge, Dr Steven Reece, and Professor David W. Macdonald from the University of Oxford, and Dr Tiejun Wang from the University of Twente.
Their paper, “Using very‐high‐resolution satellite imagery and deep learning to detect and count African elephants in heterogeneous landscapes” was published in Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation in December 2020.
For those worried about the impact this satellite observation could have on our view of space, the Worldview 3 satellite used in the research above orbits the Earth at an altitude of 617km. This is within the range researchers recommend to minimise impact on the view we have of space.
We’re curious to see how this sort of conservation evolves as satellite imaging evolves especially for creatures far smaller than pachyderms.