© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2022

Possums beware, Big Brother is watching

Archie Milligan
Thermal Camera
The thermal camera and software, used by Lincoln University to monitor possums and other species   Archie Milligan

Researchers from Lincoln university have started surveillance on Banks Peninsula’s 'wild side', as part of the Pest Free Banks Peninsula initiative.

It is the first step in eradicating possums from the 20,000-hectare area.

Some of the high-tech equipment being used for this surveillance is a thermal camera with artificial intelligence, developed by New Zealand based organisation The Cacophony Project.

Lincoln University department of pest management, Associate Professor Dr James Ross, completed his study on the effectiveness of these cameras at the end of last year. He says they are a game changer when it comes to detecting animals in controlled areas.

“It's about finding the survivors after control work has been done in an area... the last 5% of the population.”

Conventional trail cameras are standalone devices, meaning that to check whether they have caught an image of anything, the operator has to go back to where the camera was deployed and get the footage from the device. The thermal cameras can be connected to a cellular network which can send footage and information to anywhere in the world.  

“We get a lot more information from these cameras, and the fact is that I can do this from my desk as opposed to having to go out and remove SD cards, which is what we used to have to do.”

After retrieving the data, they would then have to analyse all the content individually.

This has been helpful when assessing the effectiveness of new trap designs, as researchers can tell whether an animal interacted with a trap or just passed it by.

The Cacophony system doesn’t just film animals, it can also identify species that it sees using artificial intelligence. Because the camera knows what it is looking at, and sending data back to researchers, there is no need for them to scrub through hours of footage that may have been caused by false triggers.  

The technology isn’t just focused on elimination; students have used the technology at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary in Otago to measure the kiwi population after a predator got in.

“What this means is they can log in in the morning and find out where a kiwi has been sighted. They can go in with their trained kiwi dog, locate that burrow… and do whatever they need to do.”

When it comes to further development of the technology, Ross says it comes down to extending battery life and finding a way to make the camera cheaper - one camera starts at $3000. They also intend to experiment with different types of lures, including visual and audio.

As an end goal Ross would like to see the technology developed to also measure biodiversity in areas where pests have been eradicated. He says the key thing is to start to measure the bio-diversity payback.

“It’s all very well going out and removing possums, but what are you getting for that? Are you seeing that there are more birds? Are you seeing more foliage?... The big thing that will be next is, how do we quantify the gains from taking these animals out of these areas?”

Trapping in the wild side is set to begin before the end of the year.