In almost every U.S. state, there is a threat of invasive species in some shape or form that threatens to destabilize regional ecosystems and disrupt native animal populations. These circumstances are especially prevalent in the Florida Everglades, where the Burmese python, a snake species that can grow over 20 feet long, has made the national park its home, despite being a non-native species. Scientists estimate careless owners releasing these snakes into the wild when they’re fully grown and/or the destruction of a Python breeding facility during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are the two main attributes to the rise of this invasive species in Florida. Over 2000 Burmese Pythons have been removed from the Everglades since 2002, however with no natural predators, it’s estimated over 100,000 of these invasive reptiles presently lurk in the national park’s dense swamps and forests.
In recent years, Florida has organized and sponsored python hunts, where licensed hunters are paid about $8.10 an hour to spend hours scourging acres of remote roads, land, and staking out levees trying to find snakes. Although python hunters are also rewarded $50 bonuses for each python captures measuring up to four feet, and $200 for each eliminated python nest with eggs, researchers like veteran snake hunter Bill Booth don’t think the effort is worth the pay, let alone being enough for a full-time job.
These conditions are making snake hunters like Booth, start thinking outside the box when developing new detection methods for these creatures. This prompted Booth to start collaborating with thermographer Bart Bruni and VolAero, a Miami-based drone-tech startup, to develop more efficient methods of searching for invasive pythons, using infrared thermal-tracking drones. Trackers are usually tasked with tracking pythons amidst sawgrass and swamps, but are almost always no match for the reptile’s camouflage and other elusive qualities. A tool like an infrared drone, can help find snakes faster, especially at night when pythons are most active.
“Using a thermal drone is like having x-ray vision,” says Booth. “Even if a snake is 16 inches long, camouflaged, and not moving, the drone can help us see it.”
Booth and Bruni put their theories to the test, and deployed a drone containing infrared capabilities made by VolAero, out into the field back in November.
Although snakes (like most reptiles) are cold-blooded, Bruni realized Burmese pythons give off unique heat signatures when incubating their eggs. Since infrared thermal imaging measures different heat temperatures, Bruni noticed he could calibrate a thermal device to detect a snake’s body, while distinguishing the living being from the cold ground.
“Thermography is a very technical science, but if the cameras are set properly, you can find snakes in their reproductive state,” says Bruni. “Considering a single clutch will have between 100-120 eggs, 77 percent (of which) survive, thermal imaging can help hunters expand their tracking range.”
During their nocturnal trial run, Booth caught a large adult python using the drone and Bruni’s temperature sensors. According to Bruni, the incorporation of drones and infrared technology also enables hunters to work in safer and more sustainable conditions. Instead of having python hunters aimlessly drive around these remote areas by car, Booth and Bruni’s setup would only require a couple teams of hunters to operate drones out in the field to cover more ground, while a separate team of thermographers send the python hunters GPD coordinates of these snake’s locations once they’re spotted.