Scottish start-ups are using satellite tech to help conserve elephants

16 Aug 2022

Image: © Tom/

Doug McNeil of Eolas Insight said satellite technology can help humanity tackle the problems of conservation and the climate crisis.

Two Glaswegian start-ups are using satellite tech to help conservationists count African elephants from space.

Glasgow-based Eolas Insight will use artificial intelligence and high-resolution satellite imagery to detect elephants roaming across vast areas of a national park in southern Mozambique.

The company has received funding from the European Space Agency for the project.

It is working with conservationists from the Peace Parks Foundation and with fellow Glasgow tech start-up Omanos Analytics, which uses downstream satellite data analysis and on-the-ground intelligence to improve transparency and reduce risk around the social and environmental impacts of critical infrastructure projects.

Eolas Insight is a previous participant of Scottish accelerator programme CivTech, which focuses on innovation in the public sector. The elephant conservation project is based on previous work the start-up did with NatureScot as part of the CivTech programme in 2020, where it used satellite imagery techniques to monitor Scotland’s wild red deer.

Aerial satellite image showing Scottish deer identified by yellow squares.

Satellite image tracking Scottish deer. Image: Eolas Insight

Not only can satellite tech help monitor threatened species across the world, it can also provide a more sustainable and cheaper alternative to aircraft-based counts.

Satellites can pick up data on elephants such as how vulnerable they are in their environment. The tech can be used in remote areas as it does not depend on people on the ground, and can support efforts to stop poaching.

“Technology can play a key role in tackling what is arguably the biggest challenge facing humankind – conservation and the climate crisis. Detecting animals in satellite imagery will have its place in preservation projects of the future,” said Doug McNeil, managing director of Eolas Insight.

McNeil added that in the future his company would be working on creating a web-based platform, allowing users direct access to its methodology algorithms.

“There are so many hugely powerful new technologies available for environmental professionals and ecologists, however accessing these technologies can be a job in itself,” he said.

“At Eolas, we want to take the complexity out of technology and provide invaluable information to our customers. Our hope is that we can help them in some small way in their hugely important and timely work.”

In a 2020 proof-of-concept study, scientists in the UK used machine learning and satellite imagery to count African elephants from space. They said this approach could improve the monitoring of threatened elephant populations.

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic