A combination of computer vision and drones could help restore dwindling killer whale populations.

What’s new: Researchers at Oregon State University and conservation groups SR3 and Vulcan developed a system that assesses the health of orcas, Geekwire reported.

How it works: The researchers fly drones off the coast of British Columbia and Washington State to capture video of orcas as they swim near the water’s surface. Four machine learning models collectively called Aquatic Mammal Photogrammetry Tool analyze the imagery.

  • The first model identifies video frames that include orcas and draws bounding boxes around the creatures. Next, a segmentation model outlines their bodies. A landmark detector then identifies each animal's snout, dorsal fins, and other parts and uses their relative shape and position to estimate its health. The fourth model identifies individuals based on the shape of the grey patch behind the dorsal fin.
  • Analyzing photos of orcas for signs of ill health used to take six months. The system cuts that time to weeks or days.
  • The results can inform policymakers about the need for protective measures, such as limiting the number of salmon that commercial fishermen are allowed to catch in order to leave more for the orcas.

Behind the news: Conservationists are getting help from machine learning across the animal kingdom.

  • An open source project is developing an AI-equipped collar to protect elephants from poachers.
  • A system developed at University of Southern California suggests optimal patrol routes to help park rangers in Cambodia intercept poachers.
  • Wildlife.ai is a nonprofit hub that organizes AI projects for identifying threatened species of frogs, fish, and other animals.

Why it matters: With detailed information about the health of individual creatures, conservationists can respond more quickly when they’re in trouble. The developers plan to open-source their work so it can be adapted to other populations of orcas and possibly other species of aquatic mammals.

We’re thinking: The Pacific Northwest orca population has shrunk to 75 individuals, the lowest number in 30 years. We hope for a rebound.


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