Star-hunting technology designed to pick out galaxies in the night sky is being repurposed to spot poachers who are threatening the world’s most endangered animals.
The Royal Astronomical Society has teamed up with ecologists at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) to conduct trials using drones which are fitted with infrared cameras capable of automatically detecting the thermal signatures of creatures in the dark.
Usually the technology is used to sweep the sky looking for the glow of far-off stars or galaxies which are invisible to the naked eye.
But the team has worked alongside Chester Zoo and Knowsley Safari Park to reprogramme the software with a library of animals and environments so it can spot different creatures in a variety of landscapes.
The first field trials were carried out on endangered Riverine rabbits in South Africa last September and next month the team will travel to Malaysia to study orangutans, followed by spider monkeys in Mexico and river dolphins in Brazil.
Dr Claire Burke, of LJMU, said: “With thermal infrared cameras, we can easily see animals as a result of their body heat, day or night, and even when they are camouflaged in their natural environment.
“Since animals and humans in thermal footage ‘glow’ in the same way as stars and galaxies in space, we have been able to combine the technical expertise of astronomers with the conservation knowledge of ecologists to develop a system to find the animals or poachers automatically.
“Our aim is to make a system that is easy for conservationists and game wardens to use anywhere in the world, which will allow endangered animals to be tracked, found and monitored easily and poaching to be stopped before it happens.”
Most poaching happens at night in the dark, when it is difficult for gamekeepers to keep track of animals and hunters.
But the programmed drones can survey large areas of terrain, monitoring regions that are hard to reach without disturbing the animals.
The team has even developed software that models the effects of vegetation blocking body heat, allowing detection even when creatures are concealed by trees or leaves.
And soon it will be able to distinguish between different kinds of animals by only their thermal signatures, so conservationists will be able to tell whether it is a rhino or hippo even in the pitch black darkness.
The system is also now being refined and upgraded to compensate for atmospheric effects, weather and other environmental factors.
“Humidity can be an issue, but our biggest problems occur when the temperature of the ground is very similar to that of the animal we are trying to detect,” added Maisie Rashman.
The project was presented at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Sciences in Liverpool this week.