Tiny speck in thermal photo confirms presence of increasingly rare Aussie animal in forest

Koalas are just 26 years away from extinction in on Australian state, and yet we don't know how many are left. Things might be about to change.

Can you spot the koala in this drone image? Source: Ninox Robotics
Can you spot the koala in this drone image? Source: Ninox Robotics

A tiny white speck visible in a photo confirms the existence of an increasingly rare animal in a remote forest. It was captured by a high-tech thermal camera attached to a repurposed military drone.

While it won’t win any photography awards, the grainy, black-and-white picture has created excitement at an Australian robotics firm. It’s confirmation the purpose-built system can detect sparsely populated koalas living high up in trees.

The animal was filmed last week during a two-month drone deployment in a forest just south of the Queensland border. The trial is the culmination of a $1.1 million proof of concept grant awarded to Ninox Robotics by the NSW Government.

Yes, it's a lot of money, and yes consumer-grade drones have been used to spot koalas before. But the range and capability here is reportedly a game-changer — and it's hoped the plan could help improve one key problem that's hampering koala protection.

A senate inquiry into koalas warned it could be wiped out across the state in just 26 years from now. Populations have become locally extinct in areas like Sydney's Pittwater and significantly reduced in Gunnedah, but how bad the situation is across the state has never been accurately surveyed.

It's hoped the new drone monitoring technology could create a more accurate estimate of how many koalas are left across NSW.

“We need to know how many of them there are and where they are. And if we can accurately spot them and count them in large numbers then conservation organisations can help protect [them],” Ninox Robotics’ managing director Marcus Ehrlich told Yahoo News.

Related: Aussie state where future generations will only see iconic wildlife in zoos

The survey project is important because, in Australia, wildlife population estimates are notoriously rough. For instance, the 2024 official guess for the combined koala populations of NSW, Queensland and ACT was between 95,000 and 238,000.

The problem is caused because governments don’t have the resources or budget to actually count every individual animal. So instead they use notoriously unreliable modelling systems with are often fed with insufficient data.

  • Ninox Robotics uses Skyfront Perimeter 8+ long-range drones

  • Each carries a Sierra-Olympia Vayu HD longwave infrared (LWIR) camera

  • The drones can fly from three to five hours depending on conditions

  • Koalas are tracked using manual and AI detection

The military-grade drones over Woodenbong, NSW.
The military-grade drone flies over Woodenbong as part of the koala counting trial. Source: Ninox Robotics

Marcus Ehrlich claims his drones can reach previously inaccessible areas of NSW, but he believes there’s more to calculating koala numbers than just hardware.

“It’s a custom-built system to go look for koalas over long distances. But the process of being able to do that effectively out in the field, over scale, and deliver something that can be useful to government, that’s what’s special,” he told Yahoo News.

“You’re talking about eight years of capability of putting all those components together. It takes a country’s defence force years to master advanced drone operations.”

The grant to Ninox Robotics was delivered as part of the Small Business Innovation and Research Program which was launched by the NSW Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer in 2021 to help drive innovation and boost the economy.

Ninox Robotics has been in talks with the government to survey for other threatened species like the greater glider.

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