The icy seas of the Arctic are not the most inviting location for scientific researchers. These remote, frosty areas are extremely dangerous places for observers and manned vehicles, meaning very little data is collected in this area.
So two groups of researchers have got together for a joint observation project. Environmental scientists interested in declining sea ice levels and biologists studying seals realised how closely their two fields are interlinked. Fluctuating ice levels -- dictated by global warming, weather patterns and pollution -- have a direct knock-on effect on bearded, ringed, spotted, and ribbon seals, who rely on the sea ice for breeding, resting and hiding from predators.So the two groups of researchers teamed up to launch an unmanned drone, hooked up with cameras, to survey the areas without risking pilots or observers. The aircraft, owned and operated by the University of Alaska, has a 10-foot wingspan and flies three- to five-mile-long stretches at altitudes ranging from 100-350 metres.But while clumps of ice are shown in immaculate detail, the seals are little more than ambiguous dots and smudges on the photos. For any human analyst, it would be a laborious process to pick out every animal in the snaps -- in fact, you can try for yourself at the University of Colorado's Where's Wally-esque " Find the Seals" page.So the team went to Boulder Labs Inc, in Colorado, after hearing about their successes in facial recognition. "If they're able to tell faces out of the crowd and identify who is who, I thought they might be able to use that expertise with our problem up in the Arctic," said Elizabeth Weatherhead of the University of Colorado.The newly developed software is a huge success, and was used throughout 2009 and 2010 to automate the identificaton of seals in 27,000 images. "We can send an unmanned craft out from a ship, collect 4,000 images, and have them analyzed before dinner," said Weatherhead.This new data is giving scientists more insight into problems plaguing the Arctic, and is changing the way that biologists monitor seal populations. Just this month, NOAA proposed that ringed and bearded seals be put on the endangered species list.
Next, both teams have further ambitions for the drones. They hope to answer questions about how the ice is moving, and how polar bears are affected by the changes in ice levels.