27/09/2021 | David Speirs MP | Better Services

Once limited to science-fiction, drones and facial recognition technology have since become part of modern life and now the technology is being harnessed to help save Australia’s koalas.

In new research being undertaken by Flinders University in partnership with conservation charity Koala Life and the State Government, non-invasive koala monitoring techniques are being developed using drones and facial recognition technology to count, identify and re-identify koalas.

Minister for Environment and Water David Speirs said this cutting-edge technology will be used as part of a study on koalas at Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Mount Lofty Ranges to get a better understanding of both their numbers and their movements.

“Traditionally, monitoring koala populations has involved capturing and individually marking koalas, a process that is both labour-intensive and poses potential welfare issues,” Minister Speirs said.

“It is very important for us to develop non-invasive techniques to help monitor animals in a safe way, and facial recognition through drone monitoring is utilising the latest technology to achieve this.

“The ability to recognise individual members of a species in the wild will help to grow an understanding of individual movements as well as population estimates, and this understanding will allow the development of meaningful management strategies.

“The State Government is proud to partner with Flinders University to deliver this innovative and important research project.”

Flinders University researcher Dr Diane Colombelli-Négrel said koala behavior and physiology will also be monitored during the research to test the impact of the drones and assess whether the koalas show any signs of stress.

“Drone use in animal research is used a lot across Australia, especially in Queensland to monitor koalas. Until now, potential behavior and physiological impacts haven’t been extensively researched so we are one of the few groups investigating this,” Dr. Diane said.

“Through this research, we’ll be able to determine if this method really is low impact on koalas and whether it is suitable to use over the long-term into the future.

“Koalas are declining in parts of Australia. And while in South Australia numbers are pretty good, the recent fires have reduced the numbers dramatically.

“We need to ensure that we are aware of the new numbers and how they are recovering post fires, so we can then work towards reducing impacts that affect their survival.”

Dr. Colombelli-Négrel hopes to share her results with other researchers to encourage greater application of artificial intelligence to identify animals in the wild.

Professor Chris Daniels, Presiding Member of Koala Life said the organisation is excited to support this breakthrough research and that captive koalas at Cleland Wildlife Park will play a key role in both to develop the software and testing koala response to drone monitoring.

“The koala facial recognition and drone surveillance research aligns perfectly with Koala Life research priorities and we are proud to support survival science applications”, Professor Daniels said.

Koala Life is a bridge between science and conservation efforts which aims to ensure researchers and the public have access to the best information and knowledge.