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Watch speedy drones count Antarctic penguin colonies in record time

Counting penguins is tough work: On Antarctica’s Cape Crozier, it takes scientists two full days to map the location of 300,000 nesting pairs of Adélie penguins, using helicopters and hand-flown drones. Meanwhile, brutal winds, freezing rain, and snow limit the flight windows for these laborious surveys.

Now, scientists have cut that time to just 3 hours by equipping their drones with a new flight path algorithm. Previously, scientists piloted single drones back and forth over swaths of land, similar to the way you might mow a lawn or shave a beard. But POPCORN, as the new algorithm is called, automatically sets the course for multiple drone to pass over the same area in just a fraction of the time, while avoiding collisions and meeting strict airspace regulations.

The new program, which cuts out the human pilot, was a more than 10-fold improvement on previous techniques, researchers reported last month in Science Robotics. On top of that, the researchers captured breathtaking footage of the penguins’ movements (above), which change in response to shifting patterns of sea ice.

But penguins aren’t the only target of this new technology: The researchers hope their program might one day help count livestock, or even aid in wildfire management, as first responders will have means to rapidly assess vulnerable brush at the press of a button.