Now's your chance, AI, to do good. Protect endangered eagles from wind turbines

(But wot about us vultures, sniff)

The German government hopes AI-powered cameras will its protect endangered eagles from crashing into wind turbines.

As Moscow puts the squeeze on gas supplies to Europe, Chancellor Olaf Scholz reckons building more and more wind turbine farms will – along with reactivated coal and oil power stations – help his nation wean itself off Russian fossil fuels by making up any shortfall in energy supply.

However, conservationists are worried about the turbines harming wildlife. Scholz's coalition government controversially scrapped restrictions preventing wind turbines from being built near bird nesting spots, and is in favor of adopting machine-learning technology that could help protect rare birds of prey, such as the lesser spotted eagles, from flying into turbine blades.

If everything goes according to plan, cameras built by US startup IdentiFlight will be rolled out to look out for eagles flying near Germany's coastline over the next few weeks, The Guardian first reported. Capabilities to detect the lesser spotted eagles are scheduled to be deployed in 2023.

Will it even work? Very good question.

IdentiFlight's technology has been installed at over 150 wind farms in North America, Australia, and Europe. A set of eight wide-field cameras sit atop a tower and feed footage into software trained to detect and classify specific protected bird species in the images. If the algorithms predict a bird is about to fly into a spinning wind turbine, the arms are slowed in a matter of seconds to reduce the risk of a lethal collision. The system has a 1km (0.6 mile) range, we're told.

Estimates of how many birds are killed by wind turbines in America every year vary from hundreds of thousands of birds to millions. Wind farm operators don't bother protecting all types of birds, and are only careful towards the most endangered species protected by environmental laws.

ESI Energy pleaded guilty to violating three counts of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act earlier this year, and admitted at least 150 bald and golden eagles had died across 50 of its 154 wind turbine farms across America since 2012.

IdentiFlight uses a mixture of computer vision techniques and convolutional neural networks in its attempt to detect protected avian life. The number of birds saved each year depends on the wind farm's location; some may be near migratory paths of specific species or near nesting sites. In Europe, IdentiFlight runs roughly five to six models to track different types of birds.

The company declined to discuss costs with us – as in, is this stuff actually effective enough to be worth the money – and pointed to a previous study that estimated its technology reduced eagle fatalities by 82 per cent. 

"IdentiFlight was created to facilitate the development and operation of the wind energy business by promoting the successful coexistence of avian wildlife and wind energy," a representative told The Register.

"IdentiFlight can lessen the pressures upon wind farm developers and operators by providing a sophisticated tool to detect protected avian species and also provide operators an effective means to protect select species from collision with rotating wind turbine blades.

"The IdentiFlight Mission is to further growth of renewable energy by minimizing wildlife impacts while maximizing energy production. By empowering wind farm operators with highly targeted, informed and objective curtailment decisions, unnecessary and costly interruptions are avoided and conservation of protected species is achieved." ®

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