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Marine Wildlife Detection and Tracking
Tethered balloon systems for marine energy environmental monitoring
The ability to capture photographs and videos using unoccupied aerial platforms, such as a tethered balloon system, provides unique opportunities for researchers to collect data about whales and other marine wildlife from the air for longer durations. The benefits of tethered balloon systems include their adaptability and ability to be modified to host heavy payloads with several sensors, including multispectral cameras, optical cameras, and infrared or thermal imaging sensors in flight at the same time. Triton is investigating a suite of sensor technology applications that detect and track animals in and above the water. Additionally, data analysis is a significant challenge for researchers; the team will use existing machine learning programs to help identify, track, and observe species. The validation steps investigated in this project are necessary for developing an autonomous ocean observing system.
This research is made possible through a multi-national laboratory collaboration. Triton is partnering with Sandia National Laboratories to validate these technologies for applications at marine energy test sites. The project includes testing a multispectral sensor, which images different wavelengths of light, including those outside the visible spectrum. These sensors capture data concerning the reflection of light energy off objects in the environment, allowing researchers to evaluate and process data necessary for wildlife detection above and below the water’s surface. Additionally, a thermal camera detects a heat signature in the water, which may outline an animal or detect the breath of a whale as it surfaces. To validate these sensors an RGB digital camera is used to capture images like those seen on our cellular devices or in magazines. These optical sensors will be deployed by attaching them to the tether of the aerostat balloon. Tethered balloons are often used to deploy research equipment for climate and atmospheric science monitoring. The ability to adapt this technology for marine wildlife detection allows researchers to overcome the battery, payload, and flight limitations of commonly used small unoccupied aerial systems, such as drones.
Putting the technologies to the test
The Marine Wildlife Detection and Tracking project completed a six-day technology validation campaign in La Porte, Texas. Triton worked with Sandia National Laboratories and the University of Houston – Clear Lake to deploy the tethered balloon system and sensor package to detect three differently sized marine mammal surrogates. The tethered balloon was stationed onshore near Bayshore Park and operated by Sandia National Laboratories staff, while the PNNL staff towed various sizes of marine mammal surrogates from a research vessel operated by the University of Houston Clearlake. The tethered balloon was flown at various altitudes, at different times of day, and in different weather conditions to validate the performance of the multispectral, RGB, and thermal cameras to detect surrogates in the water.
The next step for the project will be to conduct an open ocean field campaign off the west coast. The PNNL and Sandia teams will deploy the tethered balloon system and sensors aboard a research vessel.
Data from these deployments will help train artificial intelligence and machine learning programs to detect and track marine wildlife in ocean habitats where marine energy devices may be deployed and build knowledge around the potential movement and behavior of animals in relation to these devices. This project is particularly compelling because researchers can integrate commercial-off-the-shelf sensors with novel aerial technologies to answer important questions about animal behavior such as displacement or aggregation that are necessary to remove barriers to marine energy testing and implementation.
Watch this video to learn more about the project:
Also, check out this highlight reel from Triton's six-day field campaign in La Porte, Texas!