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UAVs as saviours

5 Jan 2021 By MOHAMMED TAHA

Technology is coming to the rescue of wildlife in Oman with a one-of-its-kind project underway to track and document their numbers in the vast nature reserves of the sultanate. 

Three engineers from Sultan Qaboos University have developed a project to track endangered animals in the wild using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which help overcome limitations of existing time-consuming and costly field surveys. 

The brainchild of Younis al Jadidi, Mohammed al Sarhani and Muhannad al Rumaidhi, the innovation was declared one of three winning projects of the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’s Upgrade Programme last month.

Speaking to Muscat Daily, Jadidi said, “The idea popped after we saw the concern of the Late His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said for the environment and endangered animals. He established more than 20 wildlife reserves. These reserves protect wildlife and maintain biodiversity.”

The three examined the existing methods used to track the animals and conducted interviews with the Office for Conservation of Environment (OCE), Diwan of Royal Court, which is responsible for managing the reserves and monitoring the wildlife in it. “We found many shortcomings – in terms of effectiveness and accuracy – in the tracking methods. Besides, these are costly and time-consuming procedures,” Jadidi said. 

Funded by The Research Council, their device aims to recognise, track and count the endangered animals in the reserves using artificial intelligence and drones. Additionally, Jadidi informed, the UAVs monitor the habitat of the animals. 

The three encountered several unexpected challenges following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown. “One of the biggest difficulties we faced was in creating artificial intelligence algorithms and testing the system in the field. It needed a lot of planning and determination,” Jadidi said. 

“Our tracking device employs drones and reduces manpower requirements significantly for tracking purposes.”

Jadidi and his teammates are grateful to project supervisors – Dr Ahmed al Maashri and Dr Ashraf Saleem – OCE’s Eng Salah al Mahthori for helping in making their idea a reality. 

“The project is currently in its final stages before approval for commercial use. We are looking forward to using this device in Oman’s nature reserves. The project is in line with the country’s efforts to employ technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Jadidi added.

Oman first launched a programme for the settlement and breeding of the Arabian oryx as early as 1970s. The second phase of the programme was implemented following a decision of the Late Sultan Qaboos in the 1980s. The third phase, launched in March 2020 in Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve, saw the release of Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle and rhim gazelle into the reserve.

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