Published Sept. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Collaboration could keep eagles safe.”
By Barb Gorges
Last month, while researching the wind energy/eagle issue, I learned about new technology that could help eagles survive encounters with wind farms.
IdentiFlight uses stereoscopic cameras to detect and identify eagles in flight far enough out to shut down a turbine, preventing a deadly collision.
The idea that cameras hooked up to a computer can learn to “see” eagles, using machine vision technology, is as remarkable as the collaboration behind it.
It starts with Renewable Energy Systems, started in 1982, and now a global company in the business of designing and installing as well as developing wind energy projects.
I spoke with Tom Hiester, vice president of strategy for RES Americas, whose office is in Broomfield, Colorado.
He said RES is funding the development of IdentiFlight and will own the rights to the technology and sell equipment. Other wind companies concerned with avoiding the fines for killing eagles will be the customers.
RES is working with Boulder Imaging, a Boulder, Colorado, tech company specializing in industrial precision applications.
Initial testing of the IdentiFlight system was done through the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Its testing facility, the National Wind Technology Center, is south of Boulder on 300 acres up against the foothills, where the wind can be ferocious. Companies, universities and government agencies come to test their turbines for reliability and performance.
Machine vision requires training the computer. In this case, it needed to see how real eagles fly. A golden eagle and a bald eagle were brought in from the Southeastern Raptor Center, where birds of prey are rehabilitated. They also happened to be the mascots for Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama. You can see a video at www.energy.gov/eagles.
Hiester told me they have found that eagles are more susceptible to collisions when hunting. Their heads are down, eyes concentrating on the ground. Machine vision has to identify a moving object as an eagle at 1,000 meters to give the appropriate turbine the 30 seconds needed to shut down.
This summer, IdentiFlight is getting tested by a third party selected by the American Wind Wildlife Institute. AWWI was organized about eight years ago. Half its partners are a who’s who of wind energy companies. The other half are national environmental organizations such as Audubon and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as wildlife managers represented by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and scientists represented by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
One of AWWI’s interests is minimizing eagle deaths. They expect to publish and share what they learn. Besides detecting and deterring eagles from wind turbine collisions, they are also looking at lead abatement (lead shot in carcasses left by hunters will poison eagles because eagles often eat dead animals), reducing vehicle strikes (by removing dead animals along roads), and improving the habitat of eagle prey species.
AWWI science advisors include Dale Strickland of Cheyenne. His environmental consulting firm, Western EcoSystems Technology, has studied wind and wildlife interactions across the country for a number of years.
AWWI selected the Peregrine Fund to conduct the testing. The Peregrine Fund, established in Idaho in 1970 to protect and reestablish peregrine falcon populations, also works now with other raptors around the world.
The test site is Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm outside Casper. In general, Wyoming has more eagles than other states, and some of our topographic features that cause strong wind also concentrate eagles.
For the test, IdentiFlight cameras have been set up on a tower with a 360-degree view. When motion is identified as an eagle, and velocity and proximity figured, human researchers in an observation tower confirm it. In the future, the system would be totally automated and the identification of an eagle would trigger the shutdown of the turbine in the eagle’s path. IdentiFlight can also be used to survey for eagles on prospective wind sites.
Hiester said the number of eagles actually killed by wind turbines is minor. There are more deaths from other causes. But as more and more wind projects are built, that could change, especially in Wyoming where there is a lot of wind and a lot of eagles.
Most other bird species flying through wind farms don’t have the federal protections that eagles do. IdentiFlight won’t do much for them unless they fly alongside the eagles. Hiester said that thermal imaging techniques could help identify them and bats.
Hiester has been invited to share the results of this summer’s IdentiFlight trials the evening of January 17, 2017, at the meeting of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, which is expected to be held at the Laramie County Public Library.