Wildlife biologists use Intel drones to spy on polar bears

Intel's Falcon 8+ drone launched from research boats despite steel interference.

Wildlife biologists often work in harsh environmental conditions and face dangerous animals, but their top job hazard -- helicopter and plane crashes -- could be eliminated by existing technology. According to the Audobon Society, light-aircraft crashes are the No. 1 killer of wildlife biologists.

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Unmanned aerial vehicles (commonly called drones) can solve this problem while also being less disturbing to the animals. Wildlife photographer and conservationist Ole Jørgen Liodden is using Intel's commercial drones with thermal payloads to track polar bear communities in the Arctic. Intel is targeting other industries for commercial drone sales, but Arctic research provides breathtaking imagery that helps to show off the company's Falcon 8+ drone system and its capabilities.

The drones operate in extreme conditions while using sensors and cameras to track animals that would otherwise be hidden in the snow. They can capture precise data about the bears' behavior patterns, such as breeding, feeding, and migration habits. Liodden believes that this information will help scientists understand how climate change affects not only polar bears, but the health of the entire planet.

Researchers typically use helicopters or small aircraft to study Arctic wildlife, but loud choppers disturb the animals, which makes it difficult to observe their natural behavior. These conventional methods can be expensive and imprecise, and it is especially difficult to find white bears against a snowy backdrop.

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Scientists have called polar bears a "canary in a coal mine" for climate change. (Image: Intel)

"That is why we used the thermal camera on the drone," explains Anil Nanduri, VP New Technology Group and General Manager of Intel's Drone Group. He tells ZDNet, "It could spot the bears by their heat signature, even though it was sometimes only a degree warmer than the background, it was enough to make the bears stand out in the environment."

Drones are quieter, more precise, and less expensive than manned aircraft, but they have a whole different set of problems. The batteries that power drones are sensitive to temperatures, so exposing them to the frigid Arctic air is risky. A marine biologist who uses drones to track penguins and whales in Antarctica told Popular Science that he even uses skiers' hand warmers to keep batteries warm in the field.

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The Intel Falcon 8 drone explores Arctic terrain. (Image: Intel)

On a recent Intel drone expedition, Liodden wasn't allowed on shore with polar bears, so they launched drones from boats. Unfortunately, the steel in the boats can cause magnetic fields that interfere with a drone's navigation systems and electronics. Some drones on the expedition had to disable their GPS and use manual modes instead.

Nanduri says, "One other drone had an even bigger issue in that it could not initialize its sensors without remaining still as it turned on, which is difficult on a moving, pitching, rolling boat, but the Intel Falcon 8+ drone had no issue at all."

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The steel in research boats creates a magnetic field that can interfere with electronics. (Image: Intel)

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