Hunting invasive Burmese pythons in the Everglades is no easy task: Trackers have to spot the world’s largest snake species amid the sawgrass and swamps of the protected land, but they’re often no match for the highly camouflaged constrictor. But one team of snake hunters has a new tool for finding pythons: high-tech thermal drones.
Earlier this month, veteran snake hunter Bill Booth and thermographer Bart Bruni teamed up with VolAero, a Miami-based drone-tech startup, to look for the dangerous creatures using infrared thermal-tracking drones. After a successful test run, Booth and Bruni say the flying tool could revolutionize the state’s population control efforts by allowing hunters to safely track pythons from a distance, even at night.
"Using a thermal drone is like having x-ray vision," says Booth, a 52-year-old from Bradenton who won the state's python challenge last year after killing a 15-foot, 125-pound snake. "Even if a snake is 16 inches long, camouflaged, and not moving, the drone can help us see it."
Burmese pythons likely came to the Everglades from two sources: pet owners who carelessly released their snakes once the animals were fully grown (meaning longer than 20 feet and heavier than 200 pounds) and the destruction of a python-breeding facility during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Without natural predators, the invasive snakes have exploded in population, with more than 100,000 now wreaking havoc on the Everglades' native animals. Some scientists estimate the formidable reptile has already decimated more than 90 percent of native small wildlife.
In recent years, Florida has organized a sponsored python hunt, in which licensed hunters are paid to spend hours driving along remote roads and staking out levees to try to find snakes. Hunters earn $8.10 per hour for up to eight hours daily, $50 bonus for each python measuring up to four feet (plus an extra $25 for each additional foot), and $200 for each eliminated python nest with eggs.
But Booth says this income isn't enough to pay for a full-time job. "It basically just covers the cost of fuel," he says. Consequently, hunters generally work part-time, making effective tracking and control of the python population that much more difficult.
That's why a tool that can help find snakes faster, especially at night, could be highly useful, Booth says. On November 11, the hunter and Bruni tested a thermal-imaging drone out in the wild.
VolAero, which built the device, says it mostly sells drones around South Florida for industrial uses. "They're useful in building inspection, like inspecting the roof or façade of buildings for water leakages or anomalies," Charles Zwebner, the firm's CEO, says.
But Bruni discovered that even though snakes are cold-blooded animals, they have unique heat signatures when they're incubating their eggs. Because infrared thermal imaging measures different heat temperatures, Bruni noticed he could calibrate his thermal devices to detect a snake's body separate from the cold ground.
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"Thermography is a very technical science, but if the cameras are set properly, you can find snakes in their reproductive state," he says. "Considering a single clutch will have between 100 to 120 eggs, 77 percent [of which] survive, thermal imaging can help hunters expand their tracking range."
During the experimental expedition earlier this month, Booth caught a large adult python at night by using the drone and Bruni's temperature sensors. "Usually, you find whatever snake you come across, but with the drone, you cover a lot more ground," Booth says. "Even at night, the drone sees [the snake] in the brush before you do — it's like turning on the lights."
Bruni says the technology also allows hunters to do their work more safely and sustainably. Instead of having hordes of hunters scour acres of land by car, the state "needs only five teams of hunters going out in airboats and drones, while a group of thermographers sends them GPS coordinates of where the snakes are."
Though he says it's too early to predict the future of drones in the Everglades, especially because the venture would require significant funding, Bruni says he hopes thermal drones will become the gold standard in python hunting. "Pythons are unbalancing the ecosystem of the entire Everglades," he says, "but now we can control it."