In black and white: Counting penguins gets easier with AI, computer vision


 

Antarctica’s immensely popular penguins, whose numbers are declining alarmingly, could soon count on artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision to come to their rescue.

Microsoft and Hyderabad-based start-up Gramener are harnessing the power of AI in counting Penguin populations on the icy continent faster and more accurately.

“We believe that AI has the power to help researchers identify what is causing their decline, and are using Intel AI technologies for applications of social impact. Our crowd counting solution has the potential to help us better understand penguin populations,” Naveen Gattu, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Gramener, told BusinessLine.

Deep learning model

In association with Microsoft AI for Earth, Gramener researchers in Hyderabad and Bengaluru deployed a deep learning model to count the penguins. The model uses a density-based counting approach to approximate the number of penguins in clusters of different sizes from the images, Gattu explained.

Gramener used an image dataset of Antarctica’s penguin colonies from the Penguin Watch Project, which included images from over 40 locations.

This solution could help researchers overcome challenges in manually counting penguins from camera traps, which can be tricky due to perspective distortion, penguins standing too close together or clustering, and diversity of camera angles, said Intel in a statement on the occasion of Penguin Awareness Day recently.

Vanishing act

According to a 2019 study from the British Antarctic Survey, the world’s largest emperor penguin colony has suffered unprecedented breeding issues for the past three years.

According to the survey, the number of breeding pairs of penguins in Antarctica is around 20 million. It is uniquely vulnerable to ongoing and projected climate change, and could virtually disappear by the year 2100, it warned. There are at least 30 countries, including India, operating research stations, and half-a-dozen laying territorial claims, in Antarctica.

According to a recent University of Delaware study led by oceanographer Megan Cimino, and published in Scientific Reports, up to 60 per cent of the current Adelie penguin habitat in Antarctica could be unfit to host colonies by the end of the century.

The Adelie penguin is one of two ‘true’ Antarctic penguins, the other being the emperor penguin, and it inhabits the full extent of the continent.

Using a combination of field survey data and high-resolution satellite imagery, the researchers were able to stitch together 30 years of colony data, from 1981 to 2010, at sites ringing Antarctica. They could identify population trends at each colony site for the full 30-year period.

Existential threats

The penguins have survived for nearly 45,000 years, adapting to glacial expansions and sea ice fluctuations driven by millennia of climatic changes. They remained resilient through these changes. But the rapid and unexpected climate changes in the 21st century are posing existential threats to these unique birds, warn scientists.





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