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Remote Sensing

Phantom4 Drone In Front Of Wildflowers

Program Significance

Phantom 4 Over Common Milkweed
Phantom 4 Over Common Milkweed

Monarch butterflies have severely declined in recent decades, which has mobilized an array of conservation stakeholders doing their part to support the species

and its habitat needs. To understand and effectively conserve monarch populations, we need large amounts of data across all landscapes to inform habitat and population targets and conservation strategies. Monarch Joint Venture's Remote Sensing Program provides another tool for volunteers and organizations to contribute to large-scale data collection for monarch habitat.                    

A key component to monarch reproduction is sufficient milkweed on the landscape. To properly evaluate milkweed availability across the monarch's breeding range, we need extensive physical counts of milkweed to identify where habitat needs to be improved to support their populations. Unmanned aerial systems (UASs) present a unique opportunity to efficiently collect large amounts of data on monarch habitat.

Technology Development

Annotations and Field Validation
Milkweed Annotations and Field Validation

The Monarch Joint Venture (MJV), in partnership with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Simple Business Automation (SBA), is creating a precision conservation strategy that complements the critical research performed by the monarch conservation community. This new remote sensing project uses machine learning and computer vision techniques to identify and count milkweed using standard cameras mounted on drones. In brief, machine learning is a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) that uses data and algorithms to imitate the way that humans learn and gradually improve its accuracy without explicit programming. Computer vision refers to AI that derives meaningful information from digital images, videos, and other visual inputs — and takes actions or makes recommendations based on that information. For this project, images captured by drones are processed through an algorithm to recognize and count individual common milkweed stems. The geo-located data provides estimates of milkweed density across the landscapes surveyed.

To confirm the accuracy of the counts, USGS and MJV researchers are performing manual counts of clearly identified ground-truthing plots. Drone-captured images of the same plots are processed and compared to human counts to confirm the technology's accuracy.

We are also developing conservation platform capable of supporting data collected by researchers and drone operators. The tool will support multiple algorithms developed by technology partners, enabling users to track data for numerous species of plants, animals, or other environmental characteristics. The platform will support participation by all stakeholders who own and operate drones, including community scientist volunteers and professional stakeholders.

Current Accomplishments and Accuracy

Common milkweed served as the pilot species for the program. The MJV and its partners collected aerial imagery of Midwest grasslands, manually annotated common milkweed in the images, and worked with machine learning developers to build, test, and refine the algorithm. A ground-truthing protocol facilitated model improvements and performance evaluation. Currently, this program can identify at least 80% of the common milkweed stems in an image (i.e., recall), each stem with a 93% accuracy (i.e., precision). Optimizing both metrics can achieve 84% recall with 89% precision. 

Are you looking for a new and innovative way to use your personal or professional drone? We are seeking assistance in deploying this technology starting in 2023. Will you help us count the 1.8 billion stems of milkweed needed to conserve monarchs? Sign up here to express your interest and to stay informed about the progress of the program.

The efficiency of counting milkweed and other pollinating plants is the beginning of what we intend to do. We aim to continue leveraging this innovative use of technology in service of monarch and pollinator conservation. Your financial contribution will go a long way toward ensuring we have effective tools to meet the large-scale targets necessary to ensure the monarch and its tri-national migration survive and thrive in perpetuity.