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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Empowering Conservation through Deep Convolutional Neural Networks and Unmanned Aerial Systems

  • Author(s): Epperson, Matthew
  • Advisor(s): Atanasov, Nikolay
  • et al.

Tropical rainforests worldwide are negatively impacted from a variety of human-caused threats. Unfortunately, our ability to study these rainforests is impeded by logistical problems such as their physical inaccessibility, expensive aerial imagery, and/or coarse satellite data. One solution is the use of low-cost, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), commonly referred to as drones. Drones are now widely recognized as a tool for ecology, environmental science, and conservation, collecting imagery that is superior to satellite data in resolution. We asked: Can we take advantage of the sub-meter, high-resolution imagery to detect specific tree species or groups, and use these data as indicators of rainforest functional traits and characteristics? We demonstrate a low-cost method for obtaining high-resolution aerial imagery in a rainforest of Belize using a drone over three sites in two rainforest protected areas. We built a workflow that uses Structure from Motion (SfM) on the drone images to create a large orthomosaic and a Deep Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) to classify indicator tree species. We selected: 1) Cohune Palm (Attalea cohune) as they are indicative of past disturbance and current soil condition; and, 2) the dry-season deciduous tree group since deciduousness is an important ecological factor of rainforest structure and function. This framework serves as a guide for tackling difficult ecological challenges and we show two additionally examples of how a similar architecture can help count wildlife populations in the Arctic.

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