WATCH: A machine learning robot drone monitoring the Great Barrier Reef for bleaching

Image: QUT

Australian researchers are developing a machine learning robot drone to help monitor a bigger area and respond faster to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.

Remote sensing and unmanned aerial vehicle experts from QUT have partnered with the Australian Institute for Marine Science to test a combination of small drones, machine learning and specialised hyperspectral cameras.

The pilot program surveyed three reefs from 60 metres in the air while divers recorded precise levels of coral bleaching from under the water.

“By taking readings from the air and verifying them against the AIMS (Australian Institute for Marine Science) data from below the surface, we are teaching the system how to see and classify bleaching levels,” says associate professor Felipe Gonzalez, an aeronautical engineer from QUT’s Institute for Future Environments and the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision.

“Flying 60 metres above the water gives us a spatial resolution of 9.2 centimetres per pixel, which we’ve found to be more than enough detail to detect and monitor individual corals and their level of bleaching.

“This is great news for us because low-altitude drones can cover far more area in a day than in-water surveys and they’re not hampered by cloud cover as manned aircraft and satellites are. A system like this has the real potential to boost the frequency of monitoring activities in an economical way.”

Here’s footage from the drone:

Roughly the size of Japan, the Great Barrier Reef is home to 3,000 reefs stretching 2,300 kilometres.

Key to the new aerial system is miniaturised hyperspectral cameras which until recently were so large and expensive only satellites and manned aircraft could carry them.

“We’re building an artificial intelligence system that processes the data by identifying and categorising the different ‘hyperspectral fingerprints’ for objects within the footage,” says Gonzalez.

“Every object gives off a unique hyperspectral signature, like a fingerprint. The signature for sand is different to the signature for coral and, likewise, brain coral is different to soft coral.”

An individual coral colony will give off different signatures as its bleaching level changes.

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