Kissimmee lab creates high-tech cameras to flush-out invasive python

In the heavy brush and swampy terrains of the Florida Everglades, python hunters search from the back of trucks and airboats for the invasive giants, often only seeing the mess of vegetation and nature all around, but then on a screen in one of those trucks the body of a long snake shows up clearly beneath one of the road-side bushes.

Suddenly the hunter has the advantage in the swampy game of hide-and-seek, thanks to a small camera and light on a pole.  The tech is a creation of a Belgian non-profit called Imec that's being developed in their new Kissimmee R&D lab. 

Lab Manager Orges Furxhi said snake hunters have long attempted to use heat-seeking cameras to find pythons in the dense Everglades, but the cold-blooded creatures just kind of blend into the backgrounds.  Imec's cameras use a type of infrared technology instead to take advantage of the snakes' unique skin.

"The reflectivity of the objects [the pythons] is the distinguishing feature," said Furxhi. "So we identified a region of the spectrum where we could pull out the python from the background."

A panel of lights is mounted next to the infrared camera and as the light casts out over portions of the Everglades, the snakes reflect back much darker or much brighter than their surroundings; depending on how they're viewing the image.

In video the development team shot recently, a hunter working with them can be seen clearly picking up the bright white snake out of the dark surroundings on the image. The snake can even be seen below the surface of water in the video.

The light reflection is so unique that the python's skin pattern can even be seen in the image. Imec is working with Extended Reality Systems to teach computers to cue into those patterns and automatically alert the hunter when a snake is caught on the cameras.  An assistance that the team said is very needed in the Everglades right now.

"They [hunters] drive on the back roads and levees of the Everglades and are missing probably 90 percent of the snakes just because they can't see them," said Carl Arvidson from Extended Reality Systems.

Even as bigger and bigger pythons are constantly being logged and hunters are continually bringing in skins, experts say the invasive python populations just seem to grow in the Everglades.

"Because they are so difficult to capture, there is not a really good robust number," said Eric Sutton, Executive Director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, "some will say thousands, some will say 30 thousand, some more."

FWC just announced a new approach of trapping, tagging, and releasing some pythons to try to flush out larger breeding groups. Meanwhile, experts have been tracking the movements of those snakes with concern they could spread if they run out of food in South Florida. 

The Imec team said it's clear they are running out of food.

"In probably the dozen hours we've been there: we've never seen a raccoon, we've never seen a deer, we've never seen any mammals. They've pretty much wiped out the animal population in a large area of the Everglades," said Arvidson. "The pythons are just expanding. As they wipe out their food sources: they're going north, they're going south."

The team is working with students from the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida to continue to better their cameras, expand the technology, but they say funding for the project continues to be the challenge.

They hope that the tech will one day become prominent in the fight against the pythons though, and maybe even prove effective in other areas.

"We could do so much more with just these cameras," said UCF doctorate student Jennifer Hewitt.

The python population has been growing for years as an invasive species in Florida. Experts believe they were originally brought in as pets and released into the Everglades where they bred and spread.
Pythons have been illegal to own in the state since 2010.