Ornicept: Protecting Air Traffic with Live Bird Data from the Airfield to the Office

January 17, 2013

9:00 am

Natural disasters and flight delays–partners in crime. From a airline customer perspective, we’re much more likely to fly an airline repeatedly if it has fewer delays AND superior customer service. Yes, natural disasters are out of our control, but how about bird disasters? With the help of Ornicept, airfield managers now have a viable solution to keep our flights on time. We’ll have to leave superior customer service for another day…

Tech Cocktail: What is Ornicept?

Ornicept: Ornicept (@ornicept) has developed an award-winning, proprietary system that can monitor bird use at military installations, airfields, and wind farms. The system automates identification of individual bird species (such as geese, eagles, ducks, whooping cranes, vultures, California condors, and other birds) using a remote, camera-based system. This advanced object recognition and statistical modeling software serves as an alternative to avian radar for conducting avian impact assessments. The system is the first of its kind and can assist wind developers, natural resource managers, and airfield managers in mitigating significant risk by improving the quality of actionable data and reducing the number of staff hours required to perform studies.

Tech Cocktail: What problem does Ornicept try to solve?

Ornicept: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Scientific Review Board and environmental NGOs have repeatedly raised concerns that current methods for conducting avian impact assessments are ineffective in providing sufficient data to obtain accurate, on-site data of species presence and absence. Due to costs and constraints on researchers, these studies are oftentimes conducted only in limited areas and for extremely limited periods of time, thus not capturing a reliable data set that can be used by regulators to make decisions.

For wind energy, the USFWS views many avian impact assessments with a high degree of skepticism and project approval is often uncertain. The industry has attempted to supplement its data using expensive radar-monitoring systems; however, these systems are unable to identify birds by species, which is can be necessary for compliance with the guidelines or regulatory permit requirements.

For military installations, accurate data on the presence and prevalence of birds is mission-critical for airfield operation and military readiness. Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) is an integral part of airfield management for Air Force bases, Naval training, Army drone deployments, and civilian airports. These assessments are largely conducted by ad hoc surveys performed by understaffed natural resource departments. Ornicept provides dawn-to-dusk, multi-point surveying, an unparalleled quality of data for determining spatial and temporal patterns. In short, the Ornicept system provides natural resource managers with actionable data on bird activity for regulatory compliance and protecting air traffic.

Tech Cocktail: Who are the founders?

CEO – Justin Otani

Justin Otani enjoys the opportunity to help Ornicept become a leader among cleantech businesses and environmental innovators. The son of a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, Otani has spent his life enjoying the outdoors and now has the opportunity to automate the years his father spent counting birds in the field. He received his JD in business law and intellectual property at the IU Maurer School of Law and his MBA in entrepreneurship and corporate finance at the IU Kelley School of Business.

CTO – Russell Conard

Russell Conard is a passionate entrepreneur and computer scientist with an interest in developing win-win solutions for environmentalists, military natural resource managers, and wind developers. A devout “birder,” Conard focused his efforts on creating a novel software algorithm to identify birds in flight using video cameras. While doing this graduate research at Indiana University, Conard realized the greater implications for bird identification and determined that commercialization had the greatest potential to make a difference.

Tech Cocktail: What was the inspiration behind Ornicept?

Ornicept: The company began out of graduate work I was doing at Indiana University in computer science. I’m in the rather small field of computer vision object recognition, an area that focuses on identifying objects in photos and video. Since I have been an avid bird watcher since high school, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could develop an algorithmic approach to identifying bird species automatically in video. If I had known how difficult this would be, I might not have chosen this problem to work on! Fortunately, after a few months of work, I started having great results. In order to start collecting field data, I leaned on my experience in wildlife photography. For several years I had run a professional media and photography company to cover the equipment I wanted to buy for my love of shooting artistic bird photos and panoramas.

Through this process, I have created my dream company. I used to take trips to photograph birds for fun and do computer science research by day, and I am thrilled to have found a way to bring all of my passions together. We now have an automated system for tracking birds with specialized equipment, and then the software identifies each bird and compiles a rich picture of how different species of birds travel through any given area. The applications are very important, and we’re having a lot of fun.

Tech Cocktail: Who is your greatest competitor and how do you differentiate yourself?

Ornicept: Field data on birds is currently collected by sending out observers with binoculars. Many of these biologists are highly committed and talented, but budgetary constraints and the practical limits of this very analog approach result in limited datasets. Due to the difficulty of deploying staff, the standard interval for these surveys is a mere twenty minutes per week per location for standard point counts at wind project sites. When regulations call for longer studies, significant human resource expenses come into play. For example, wind projects built in the Great Plains within the Central Migratory Flyway can be required to have continuous whooping crane spotters on site for six months a year, for twenty years.

Utilizing Ornicept’s unmanned avian monitoring system provides many advantages over the traditional human observer. By automating the process with cameras, this system allows the biologists to better invest their time in data analysis. The cameras don’t tire, get distracted, stay in hotels, or require training. The algorithm allows for consistent and accurate detection of bird species, flight direction, position, and altitude. With data from each camera node, a statistical model is created to describe the site. By installing an automated system that can run dawn to dusk for years with verifiable data, our solution creates a new standard for avian surveying.

Our goal is to put high quality data and cutting edge tools in the hands of biologists so they can use their time most effectively. By surveying all day, every day, our system can build a stronger understanding of trends across a wide range of variables. This in turn gives greater confidence to wind developers, government regulators, and military natural resource managers who use our system.

Tech Cocktail: What is the biggest advantage and disadvantage of starting up in your city?

Ornicept: We recently moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and got accepted into the Ann Arbor SPARK incubator downtown. We have been excited to become a part of the Ann Arbor startup community, and we have found SPARK to be very supportive. Through SPARK and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, we have access to microloans, matching programs, subsidized services, and incubator space. These tools empower us to focus our time on developing our products and marketing strategies. We are getting ready to raise an investment round, and we are hoping to find a vibrant investment community as well.

Tech Cocktail: What’s one quirky fact about you, your team, or your office culture?

Ornicept: As a team, we really enjoy authentic regional foods. From Western saloons and Southern barbecue to Michigan craft beers and small farmers’ markets, we try to enjoy local flavors wherever we travel. We believe that eating local is more sustainable and tastes a lot better.

This fall, we are enjoying working from our remote office on the shore of Lake Erie where we are collecting data on the huge raptor migration that funnels right over our heads. Equipped with laptops, our field camera setup, a battery, a space heater, and a mobile hotspot, we are staying productive and collecting valuable data. It beats a cubicle any day!

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Jeff Tong is a social media strategist in Washington DC and has been a long-time contributor at Tech Cocktail. You'll find Jeff at tech events, foodie hangouts, and possibly snorkeling somewhere tropical. Contact Jeff online at @gundamwing4132 or jefftong@tech.co.

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