High-tech python hunters from Osceola heading to Everglades

A new infrared camera developed at Osceola County’s technology park could revolutionize the ongoing hunt for Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

Until now, thermal cameras have been the standard-bearer in Florida’s effort to reduce the exotic species.

imec USA, the Belgian nonprofit and one of NeoCity’s anchor companies, is leading the project in collaboration with the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida and Extended Reality Systems, a local tech start-up company.

The high-quality spectral resolution camera the consortium has developed operates in the near infrared band, invisible to animals and humans.

Thermal cameras, on the other hand, typically only detect heat, which makes hunting for pythons difficult because they’re cold-blooded and often take on the same temperature as their environment. Their camouflaged scales also make them difficult to detect with the human eye, although many a python hunter in South Florida have developed this ability.

The new spectral resolution camera works in conjunction with an LED light source that together detect a python’s reflection, not its heat signature.

Initial experiments at the Brevard Zoo and at a UF facility in South Florida have been successful, according to imec.

Engineers from imec and Extended Reality Systems are heading to the Everglades this month for field-testing. They plan to mount their camera on a 10-foot tuna pole affixed to a python hunter’s vehicle.  

The consortium hopes to integrate the spectral cameras on drones, which could expand the search area into more remote locations that python hunters can’t access. They typically travel on back roads and levees.

“At this point we’re trying to show that this technology works,” said Carl Arvidson, the founder and sole employee at Extended Reality Systems.

An artificial intelligence component for the spectral camera is also being developed at imec.

Engineers are modifying camera hardware to enhance the performance of machine-learning algorithms to make detection automatic, said Orges Furxhi, R&D manager with the camera systems and computational imaging group at imec USA.

“The goal is to eventually have the computer find the python instead of humans,” Arvidson said. “But you still have to grab ‘em. So in reality, there will be more hunters if we’re successful.”

Meanwhile, Burmese pythons are literally squeezing the life out of the Everglades.

Marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits and foxes have been decimated, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Its 2012 study also showed that raccoon, opossum and bobcat populations have declined by roughly 90 percent since 1997.  

Exotic pet owners who lost or released the non-venomous constrictors into the wilds of South Florida are said to be responsible for the epidemic. It was exacerbated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The Burmese python stalks its prey using chemical receptor on its tongue. It lays in wait until striking with its rearward-pointing teeth and simultaneously coiling itself around the animal and squeezing it to death. The subtropical climate and the sheer vastness of the Everglades – 7,800 square-mile of land untouched by humans – make it a perfect breeding ground for the pythons, who have no natural enemies.

Native to Asia, the snakes typically grow between 6 and 10 feet long in Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

However, a 17-foot, 140-pound female python containing 73 developing eggs was captured by researchers in April. They located the snake by using male pythons with radio transmitters to find breeding females.