To Save Endangered Species, Scientists Point Stargazing Software Back to Earth
Attendees at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS), hosted in Liverpool, UK from April 3 to 6, had the chance to hear a surprising presentation.
Dr. Claire Burke, an astrophysicist at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), explained how software used to identify galaxies is being used closer to Earth—to resolve problems involved with the tracking of endangered species.
"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," Burke explained in an LJMU press release.
"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," she said.
The project uses machine-learning algorithms developed for astronomy to train software to recognize different animals in varying landscapes based on infrared images. It is an important technique because it can identify animals at night, when most poaching occurs.
The story of how the system developed, as reported by BBC News April 3, is almost as fascinating as the technology itself.
LJMU conservationist Serge Wich developed a system to track endangered animals using infrared cameras mounted on drones. Monitoring the populations of endangered species has traditionally been done by physically counting animals or the signs they left behind, but such methods are time-consuming and inaccurate, since scientists can't always follow where different populations move.
Wich's tests with drones at Chester Zoo and Knowsley Safari Park showed promise. Wich could detect the animals' presence, but he couldn't always tell which animal was which.
He lamented his problem to his neighbor in a conversation over a shared fence. Fortunately, his neighbor was Dr. Steve Longmore, an astronomer also working at LJMU, who told him about Burke's work identifying galaxies from the patterns of light they emitted.
"I collaborated with quite a few people during my career but astrophysicists were not on my list of potential collaborators," Wich told BBC News.
"But here we are. It shows how the serendipity of how science works."
LJMU reported that the team tested the software in the field in September 2017 by tracking Riverine rabbits, one of the most endangered mammals in the world. They sighted five of the highly elusive creatures.
"Given that there have only been about 1,000 sightings of Riverine rabbits by anyone in total, it was a real success," Burke said in the LJMU release.
Their next tests will involve tracking orangutans in Malaysia and spider monkeys in Mexico in May and monitoring Brazilian river dolphins in June, LJMU reported.
Longmore explained to BBC News why the new technique is such a breakthrough for protecting vulnerable species.
"Conservation is not only about the numbers of animals but also about political will and local community supporting conservation. But better data always helps to move good arguments forward. Solid data on what is happening to animal populations is the foundation of all conservation efforts," he said.
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By Harry Kretchmer
By 2030, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the European Union must come from renewable sources, according to binding targets agreed in 2018. Sweden is helping lead the way.
Sweden is a world leader in renewable energy consumption. Swedish Institute/World Bank
Naturally Warm<p>54% of Sweden's power comes from renewables, and is helped by its geography. With plenty of moving water and 63% forest cover, it's no surprise the <a href="https://sweden.se/nature/energy-use-in-sweden/#" target="_blank">two largest renewable power sources</a> are hydropower and biomass. And that biomass is helping support a local energy boom.</p><p>Heating is a key use of energy in a cold country like Sweden. In recent decades, as fuel oil taxes have increased, the country's power companies have turned to renewables, like biomass, to fuel local 'district heating' plants.</p><p>In Sweden these trace their <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank">origins back to 1948</a>, when a power station's excess heat was first used to heat nearby buildings: steam is <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/district-heating-system" target="_blank">forced along a network of pipes</a> to wherever it's needed. Today, there are around 500 district heating systems across the country, from major cities to small villages, providing heat to homes and businesses.</p><p>District heating used to be fueled mainly from the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140" target="_blank">by-products of power plants</a>, waste-to-energy plants and industrial processes. These days, however, Sweden is bringing more renewable sources into the mix. And as a result of competition, this localized form of power is now the country's<a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> home-heating market leader.</a></p>
Sweden is using smart grids to turn buildings into energy producers. Huang et al/Elsevier
Energy ‘Prosumers’<p>But Sweden doesn't stop at village-level heating solutions. Its new breed of energy-generation takes hyper-local to the next level.</p><p>One example is in the city of Ludivika where 1970s flats <a href="https://www.buildup.eu/sites/default/files/content/transforming-a-residential-building-cluster-into-electricity-prosumers-in-sweden.pdf" target="_blank">have recently been retrofitted with the latest smart energy technology</a>.</p><p>48 family apartments spread across 3 buildings have been given photovoltaic solar panels, thermal energy storage and heat pump systems. A micro energy grid connects it all, and helps charge electric cars overnight.</p><p>The result is a cluster of 'prosumer' buildings, producing rather than consuming enough power for 77% of residents' needs. With <a href="http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1232060/FULLTEXT01.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high levels of smart meter usage</a>, it's a model that looks set to spread across Sweden.</p>
<div id="d7bf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8757b138d5570bec9d6aad18074a429a"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1273556364263071744" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Read more about Western Harbour and book a visit: https://t.co/ujSmVs9rNK 🏡🌳🌊 https://t.co/C5PuPziqIM</div> — Smart City Sweden (@Smart City Sweden)<a href="https://twitter.com/SmartCitySweden/statuses/1273556364263071744">1592474473.0</a></blockquote></div>
Scaling Up<p>A recent development by E.ON in Hyllie, a district on the outskirts of Malmö, southern Sweden, <a href="https://www.eonenergy.com/blog/2019/February/sweden-smart-city" target="_blank">has scaled up the smart grid principle</a>. Energy generation comes from local wind, solar, biomass and waste sources.</p><p>Smart grids then balance the power, react to the weather, deploying extra power when it's colder or putting excess into battery storage when it's warm. The system is not only more efficient, but bills have fallen.</p><p>Smart energy developments like those in Hyllie, Ludivika, and renewable-driven district heating, offer a radical alternative to the centralized energy systems many countries rely on today.</p><p>The EU's leaders have a challenge: how to generate 32% of energy from renewables by 2030. Sweden offers a vision of how technology and local solutions can turn a goal into a reality.</p>
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