Researchers develop new tool to help in the fight against invasive Burmese pythons

Researchers and engineers are designing new technology they hope will help in the fight against the invasive Burmese pythons found in the Everglades.

Imec, a not-for-profit company from Belgium, teamed up with researchers from the University of Central Florida to develop a specialized hyperspectral camera for python hunters to use in the field.

The camera uses the reflectivity of the snakes’ scales to provide imagery to hunters that makes the well-camouflaged species easier to spot.

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Burmese pythons blend in well with the Everglades’ foliage and spotting snakes with the naked eye is a skill hunters develop over time. The new camera is supposed to help hunters see the snakes that they may normally miss.

A python is shown through the new hyperspectral camera developed by Furxhi and Driggers.

Geoff Roepstorff, CEO of Edison National Bank, hunts Burmese pythons with his wife, Robbie, the president of the same bank.

“You really have to develop an eye for them,” Geoff said. “That’s why this camera would help. There could be some under the brush that you don’t even know are there.”

The couple goes out once a week to drive along levees and dirt roads in search of the invasive snakes.

“I’d like to see some money spent on this,” he said. “That could mean some really good stuff on the horizon.”

Orges Furxhi, the research and development manager at imec worked with Ron Driggers, a professor of optics and photonics at the University of Central Florida to develop the camera.

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The two have military backgrounds and were familiar with the idea of using reflectivity to find things that are not so easy to see without specialized equipment.

Researchers with imec and the University of Central Florida set up a prototype of the hyperspectral camera atop a python hunter's SUV.

Furxhi and Driggers created a prototype, boxed it up and tested it on snakes at the Brevard Zoo. The results from these tests helped the pair move on with the project.

They soon were able to meet a python removal contractor from the South Florida Water Management District for a field test.

Donna Kalil has been hunting Burmese pythons in the Everglades since 2005. Furxhi and Driggers were able to link up with Kalil and get the prototype camera set up on her truck.

“Orges designed the camera and mounted a monitor there,” Driggers said. “We stood on top of truck going through dirt roads and it showed that the camera would work well and the monitor would work.”

A python is shown through the new hyperspectral camera developed by Furxhi and Driggers.

Kalil said the test went pretty well but noticed opportunities for improvement.

“The imaging has some drawbacks, but it can definitely be of service to us,” she said.

Furxhi and Driggers acknowledged there was room for improvements and enhancements. They hope to be able to transmit the camera’s signal to an iPad within the cab so it’s easier to use.

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The camera processes the images real time, so the delay is not noticeable, Driggers said.

An iPad or monitor may work well for a team working well at night, but Kalil said a smaller iPad screen is going to be hard to see if hunters are out in the day.

“There is potential, but truthfully the thing that’s needed is that computer learning aspect used for the monitor. Once we have that part we’re golden,” she said.

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Kalil sometimes hunts alone and can’t always have an eye on a monitor while driving and looking for snakes on her side of the truck. She hopes some type of alert system can be implemented that notifies the hunter when a potential snake is on the screen.

Furxhi said one of the enhancements he would like to put in the camera would be an artificial intelligence aspect that could automatically search for pythons. The researches would also like to get the camera on a drone system to give hunters a larger area of coverage.

A python is shown through the new hyperspectral camera developed by Furxhi and Driggers.

Kalil recently tested a regular drone in the field and said the device needed to be 10 or 15 feet from the snake before she could see anything.

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“We have maybe six weeks or eight weeks (of work) into the camera,” Driggers said. “That’s over a period of a year and a half. We take a little bit of time here and there to work on it.”

The camera and its software were co-designed and created so that the software can run in handheld devices or in larger systems mounted on the ground or in a vehicle.

Researchers with imec and the University of Central Florida set up a prototype of the hyperspectral camera atop a python hunter's SUV.

Once Driggers and Furxhi are happy with their prototype, they will work with Orlando-based Extended Reality Systems to go from prototype to working model.

“Extended Reality Systems has been working with hunters,” Driggers said. “They had been working with them trying to come up with a camera solution. It turned out that thermal cameras that detect heat and didn’t work very well since snakes are cold blooded. They came to Orges and I and asked if we had ideas.”

The pair hopes to have something ready by November.

“This new tool that’s coming online will change the odds,” Kalil said.

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter at Naples Daily News. Follow him on Twitter: @karlstartswithk