Can AI prevent rare eagles from flying into wind turbines in Germany?

SSmall in size, sensitive in build and with only 130 breeding pairs surviving locally in the wild, the Oder Delta dwarf eagle is aptly named. In Germany, key questions about the country’s energy future hinge on whether artificial intelligence systems can do a better job of spotting the reclusive animal than bird watchers.

Spotted eagles (named for the teardrop-shaped spots on their feathers) love to ride thermals on many plains earmarked for a massive expansion of onshore wind farms by a pressured German government to make up for an impending loss of nuclear, coal factories and Russian gas.

Because mid-flight spotted eagles are unaccustomed to vertical obstacles and keep their eyes focused on mice, lizards or frog-like prey below, conservationists say, they have been known to enter occasionally colliding with the rotor blades of wind turbines. German researchers list eight dead specimens found near wind farms since 2002, a small number but not negligible given the endangered status of the species in the country.

A controversial reform of the federal nature conservation law, pushed by the coalition government of Olaf Scholz earlier this summer, reduces the red tape involved in building wind farms near nesting sites, but is banking on AI-driven “anti-collision systems” as a way to minimize these crashes.

Colorado software engineers feed hundreds of thousands of aircraft images clanga pomarina in an algorithm. Connected to a camera system perched atop a 10-meter tower, trained neural networks from US company IdentiFlight are expected to detect approaching eagles from a distance of up to 750 meters and electronically alert the turbine.

The turbine will then take 20 to 40 seconds to go into “trundle mode” of no more than two rotations per minute, ideally giving the eagle plenty of time to navigate safely between its slowly moving blades.

IdentiFlight has spent three years testing its collision avoidance systems at six supervised sites across Germany, and claims its neural network shows rates of over 90% for recognizing and classifying red kites, the first birds in prey in which he was trained for German territories. While fog, rain or snow can reduce the effectiveness of the system, according to the makers, low visibility also decreases eagles’ appetite for aerial hunting raids.

A camera trained to recognize birds as part of IdentiFlight's
The system should detect eagles approaching from a distance of up to 750 meters. Photography: IdentiFlight

The system is expected to be certified to spot sea eagles in the coming weeks, with validation for their less spotted relatives scheduled for 2023. “From our point of view, the system could be a good solution,” said Moritz Stubbe, A business manager. trying to bring anti-collision systems to German wind farms. “We are waiting for the green light.

The tech fix also aims to solve a political conundrum for the Greens, the second party in the three-party coalition government and the driving force behind the new nature conservation law. By keeping the peace between those of his supporters who define green politics primarily as safeguarding biodiversity and those who prioritize mitigating the climate crisis.

Wind power in Germany experienced a massive boom after Angela Merkel announced the phasing out of nuclear power in 2011, with wind farms currently supplying around a quarter of the country’s electricity needs. But expansion plans have stalled for four years, at around 30,000 turbines delivering just over 60,000 megawatt hours a year.

Wind energy companies complain that planning applications are taking longer and longer, as not only environmentalists but also anti-turbine residents have learned to use natural protection laws to thwart their plans.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended decades of German energy policy, Scholz’s government had announced its intention to reverse the trend: it plans to increase electricity produced from renewable energy by 80% over the next eight years and to commit the 16 German federal states to provide 2% of their landmass for wind energy over the next ten years. Experts say that would mean 16,000 more turbines by 2030, or 38 per week.

To achieve these goals, Germany’s Greens-run Environment Ministry has for the first time drawn up a definitive list of 15 birds it deems at risk of colliding with wind turbines. Animals that were not on the list, such as the black stork, cannot be cited to stop a development request. But even those who have succeeded are now protected to a lesser extent.

Wind farms can in future be built outside a radius of 1.5 km around the spotted eagle’s nest, for example, from 3 km. In the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, conservation officers said it is likely to affect 10 breeding pairs.

Wind farm developers may still be required to take additional measures to protect birds at risk, such as turning off turbines while nearby fields are being harvested, thus attracting birds of prey looking for field mice. newly exposed.

However, shutting down the turbines for an entire breeding season will no longer be allowed and the rotor blades will no longer be allowed to be kept shut down if the farm’s energy production is reduced by 4-8% in accordingly, depending on the location.

‘It’s a disaster,’ said a conservation officer who did not want to be named, suggesting the legislation risked being challenged and therefore bogging down planning applications rather than freeing builders of turbines. Some lawyers argue the new law violates EU environmental law; the German Wind Energy Association (BWE) vehemently disagrees. Legal action seems predestined.

“As a society, we need to start asking ourselves some fundamental questions,” said Wolfram Axthelm, chief executive of BWE. “Do we want to build wind farms because we want to mitigate climate change and protect the environment as a whole? Or do we want to save each bird individually? »

The number of birds killed by wind turbines, he said, was dwarfed by those who perished after flying through windows, being run over by cars or grabbed by house cats. “We need to focus on the population as a whole.”

The Orchard Clan takes its name from Pomerania, the historical region located on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. In Germany, the spotted eagle population has declined by a quarter since the 1990s, not primarily because of wind turbines, but because of the gradual disappearance of wooded and wet habitats where the birds like to nest.

Further east, in Estonia, Lithuania and Slovakia, the species is still thriving. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species lists the world population of the spotted eagle as stable, with around 40,000 to 60,000 mature individuals remaining in the wild.

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