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Drones and artificial intelligence show promise for conservation of farmland bird nests

Farmland bird species are declining over most of Europe. Birds breeding on the ground, are particularly vulnerable because they are exposed to mechanical operations, like ploughing and sowing, which take place in spring and often accidentally destroy nests.

Researchers flew a drone carrying a thermal camera over agricultural fields to record images. These were then fed to an artificial intelligence algorithm capable of accurately identifying nests, a first step to aid their protection. Researchers tested the system in Southern Finland using wild nests with eggs of the Lapwing Vanellus vanellus.

Lapwing eggs in nest

"We have been involved in conservation of ground-nesting farmland birds for years, and realized how difficult it is to locate nests on the ground. At least at high latitudes, the temperature of these nests is typically higher than that of the surrounding environment. Hence, we thought that thermal cameras could assist." says Andrea Santangeli, an Academy of Finland fellow at the Finnish Museum of Natural History Luomus, University of Helsinki.

It is possible to map in near real-time the spread of diseases on crops using drones with various sensors, and is an integral part of precision agriculture, a new way of crop production that makes large use of drone technology to monitor crops and maximize production efficiency.

Studies like this one can help pave the way to integrate bird nest detection within the drone borne sensors used in precision agriculture, and automate a system for saving those nests.

"The conservation community must be ready to embrace technology and work across disciplines and sectors in order to seek efficient solutions. This is already happening, with drone technology becoming rapidly popular in conservation. Our auspice is that this system will be, one day, fully integrated into agricultural practices, so that detecting and saving nests from mechanical destruction will become a fully automated part of food production," says Andrea Santangeli.

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