Research ArticleNAVIGATION

Multidrone aerial surveys of penguin colonies in Antarctica

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Science Robotics  28 Oct 2020:
Vol. 5, Issue 47, eabc3000
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abc3000

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Abstract

Speed is essential in wildlife surveys due to the dynamic movement of animals throughout their environment and potentially extreme changes in weather. In this work, we present a multirobot path-planning method for conducting aerial surveys over large areas designed to make the best use of limited flight time. Unlike current survey path-planning solutions based on geometric patterns or integer programs, we solve a series of satisfiability modulo theory instances of increasing complexity. Each instance yields a set of feasible paths at each iteration and recovers the set of shortest paths after sufficient time. We implemented our planning algorithm with a team of drones to conduct multiple photographic aerial wildlife surveys of Cape Crozier, one of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world containing more than 300,000 nesting pairs. Over 2 square kilometers was surveyed in about 3 hours. In contrast, previous human-piloted single-drone surveys of the same colony required over 2 days to complete. Our method reduces survey time by limiting redundant travel while also allowing for safe recall of the drones at any time during the survey. Our approach can be applied to other domains, such as wildfire surveys in high-risk weather conditions or disaster response.

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