Thanks to new camera technology developed by researchers in the Florida High Tech Corridor, invasive python species that have gone undetected for decades while disrupting the ecosystem in Florida’s Everglades will now be much easier to catch.

High-powered optics and photonics technology is often used for military imaging or autonomous vehicle development, but two industry experts have proven photonic imaging can extend its traditional applications to solve major ecological problems, too.

University of Central Florida College of Optics and Photonics professor Ron Driggers, and research and development manager of camera systems and computational imaging at imec USA, Orges Furxhi, have tapped into the opportunity presented by the burgeoning optics and photonics industry – an industry valued at over $600 billion and expected to reach more than $979 billion by 2024 – to solve for the infestation of foreign Burmese Pythons in the Florida Everglades.

This meddlesome species, according to National Geographic, can reach 23 feet or more in length and weigh up to 200 pounds. Despite their size, pythons are hard to spot with natural markings that camouflage them against the human eye. Historically, researchers have tried using infrared cameras to detect the pythons, but snakes are cold blooded and do not show any thermal contrast compared to their environment. As a result, they have largely gone undetected – until now.

Driggers and Furxhi, who have collaborated on projects since 2016 when imec established its first U.S. research center in Kissimmee, were first approached about the project by a colleague who brought the issue of invasive pythons to their attention. Intrigued by the potential to solve this problem with advanced optical technology, they embarked on an adventure to develop a camera sharper than the human eye that could expose the pythons.

“At first, we thought this python research was just another fun project that could take advantage of our technology,” Furxhi shared. “However, we soon realized that this was an ecological problem that is threatening the Everglades.”

The challenge was finding the exact wavelength for each pixel in an image at which snakes would lose their camouflage. The visible range of site for humans falls anywhere between 400 to 700 nanometers. Beyond the point of 700 nanometers, everything in nature – especially vegetation – becomes highly reflective. Alternatively, living creatures – like snakes – remain dark against an all-white background. Applying this knowledge, researchers knew they had to develop a camera with capabilities to “see” beyond the human visible spectrum. The sweet spot, they found, was around 850 nanometers.

“Looking through this new camera, you’ll see a dark thing that looks like a stick in the middle of a white field,” Furxhi explained. “If it happens to move, we know we are most certainly looking at a snake.”

The research team for this project also includes UCF Ph.D. student Jennifer Hewitt. Her graduate-level research is focused on hyperspectral military imaging, which uses nearly synonymous technology as the python camera. This experience opened the door for her to work alongside industry professionals while moving the needle on an important environmental issue. Her story is a testament to the unlimited opportunities in The Corridor and the continuous chance to learn and grow in high tech fields.

For Driggers and Furxhi, it’s the quality of industry expertise and a shared “willingness to get things done” that make The Corridor region such a great place to work.

“The sky is always blue here,” Furxhi shared. “It sure helps to work with colleagues who are always happy. The Corridor is a great place to work and raise a family.”

After nearly two years and countless infrared images of pythons, research for the camera is still ongoing with the goal to develop a device that is efficient enough for hunters to use in management of the python population in the Everglades. Currently, three different versions of the camera are in development: a handheld device, one that can be mounted onto a vehicle and an attachment for a drone.

With the initial measurements in place, researchers are now pursuing funds to support continued development of the imaging system, with the goal of getting it into the hands of ecological experts. While the device’s commercial impacts are yet to be determined, this innovative solution just may be the first step to restoring the delicate Everglades ecosystem.

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