A University of South Australia Ph.D. student can now add “world first” to her resume after collaborating with global cameraman Douglas Thron to accurately measure heart and respiratory rates of African wildlife filmed by drone.
Danyi Wang, working under the direction of UniSA remote sensing engineer Professor Javaan Chahl, used advanced signal processing techniques to detect vital signs of zebras, sable antelopes, waterbuck and giraffes on drone images.
It is believed to be the first time this technique, developed in 2019 by Prof. Chahl and his team, has been used to successfully extract heart and respiratory rates from animals filmed at long distances by a drone.
The partnership with Thron, one of the world’s most talked-about drone pilots, came about after the cameraman read about Prof. Chahl’s remote sensing research with Adelaide Zoo.
Thron films around the world using specialized drones with infrared cameras, zoom lenses and floodlights to rescue animals affected by natural disasters. He spent six months in Australia in 2020 after the World Wildlife Fund hired him to find vulnerable wildlife in the wake of the country’s devastating bushfires.
That experience – as well as the world’s first experiment in Malawi, Africa – is reflected in a documentary series, aptly named “Doug to the Rescue,” which is broadcast in more than 30 countries around the world on the Curiosity Stream channel.
In the Malawi documentary, which premiered in mid-June, Wang and Prof. Chahl are interviewed via Zoom and discuss the challenges they faced in capturing tiny movements from the animals’ chest cavities, filmed by Thron’s drone. from a range of more than 50 meters.
“We had to select the right sequences in the video where it was stable enough to get our heart rate, but we were able to do it,” says Prof. Chahl.
According to Wang, the sable antelope’s heart rate was right in the middle of the normal range and breathing was at the lower end, indicating that it was very healthy and not stressed at all, even from the presence of the drone.
Likewise, the vital signs recorded from a giraffe, zebra and waterbuck were all within the expected range.
“It was exciting to work with a US-based documentary team on location in Malawi, via video conferencing from Adelaide, while the Australian borders were closed,” Wang says. “It just shows what is possible in a research context using modern technology, even in a pandemic.”
Wang was also part of the UniSA team that partnered remotely in 2020 with Canadian drone manufacturer Draganfly to develop COVID screening technology for humans.
Prof. dr. Chahl says there is significant potential to use the same technology to monitor the health of wildlife worldwide, especially endangered animals, and to support conservation efforts.
“We have shown that a drone can be used to film wildlife at long distances without disturbing or highlighting them, then use AI techniques to successfully extract cardiopulmonary signals to check remotely for signs of ill health.
“This documentary was partly an experiment. Doug and his team wanted to verify that their work did not harm the animals they are trying to help. Our results confirmed that.”
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Provided by the University of South Australia
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