Dual-Polarisation Weather Radar for Advanced Monitoring of Aerial Biodiversity (BioDAR)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Inst of Integrative & Comparative Biolog


The BioDAR Project will revolutionise the way in which we record the abundance and diversity of animals that live in the air, by harnessing the power of next generation weather radar. Weather radar scan the entirety of the UK every 5 minutes, and similar types of radar are used around the world for the same purpose. These radar routinely detect bees and other insects, but since animals are not of interest to meteorologists, they are discarded as unwanted "noise". That "noise" is a veritable treasure trove of information on insect diversity and abundance, but what is required is a way to link what a radar sees to the insects that we wish to monitor. The BioDAR Project brings together leading ecologists and radar scientists to collaborate on a programme of work that will produce, test, and disseminate computer algorithms to turn radar noise into high quality biological data with the potential to produce a step change in the way in which we monitor the environment.

In the first phase of the project, we will use computer scanning techniques that can image objects 1/10th the width of a human hair to produce high resolution 3D models of a range of 60 different insects of different shapes. Using software techniques from physics, we can simulate what the radar might see when each of those animals passes through the radar beam. The results of those simulations will be used to produce algorithms that can classify results from the radar data into different kinds of insects based on their shape, as well as quantifying the diversity and number of insects passing through the beam.

In the second phase of the project, we will then test the classification algorithms by comparing our radar predictions against three different datasets. First, we will look at three existing datasets that have used (i) special radar called "vertical looking radar" to scan small areas of sky, (ii) a network of 18 suction traps that capture insects every day, and (iii) a network of 83 light traps that catch nocturnal moths. Next, we will conduct our own insect sampling using nets at a range of heights from 12m to 1km attached to balloons. Finally, we will attempt to produce our own insect assemblage in the radar beam using lab-reared bluebottle flies to saturate the air in different locations around the radar. These three tests will help us to understand how our algorithms perform in the field.

In the third phase of the project, we will combine the lessons learned about our classification algorithms in the first and second phases to produce a national map of aerial insect biodiversity and abundance. This map will be used to investigate a pressing issue in conservation: the effect of human modification of the landscape on insects. We will examine this issue in three ways, by looking at the impacts of light pollution, urbanisation, and agri-environment schemes (which are designed to help nature on farmland). We would expect lower insect biodiversity and abundance near areas with high nocturnal light pollution, higher intensity of urbanisation, and in the absence of agri-environment schemes.

The final part of the project will take everything that we have learned (the classification algorithms from phase 1, the validation studies in phase 2, and the national mapping data from phase 3, and make them available to all researchers and the general public. We will make all of our data and analysis transparent so that any researcher can replicate the work, which we hope will enable other countries to make use of our findings to apply the BioDAR approach to their own weather radar networks. The data will also be turned into an online portal which can be accessed by the general public to see insect biodiversity and abundance in an interface similar to a weather forecast. The final datasets will be of great interest to a range of end users, including local and national governments, farmers, and conservation groups.

Planned Impact

For each impact, we indicate likely timescales of anticipated impacts: ST=short term (lifetime of grant, impact realised as results are available), MT=medium term (1-3 years after grant, impact through integration of findings into statutory monitoring), and LT=longer term (expansion to other areas including US and South Africa).

Statutory agencies: Agencies with responsibility for monitoring the UK environment (Natural England, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) will be engaged from the beginning of the project as members of the User Group, and will be involved in the design of the user-facing BioDAR tool to ensure that results are useful at the end of the project [ST, MT]. The outputs from the project, both in terms of the analytical pipeline and the aerial biodiversity maps, will both be of direct relevance to the monitoring of the environment. BioDAR outputs will be developed with the intention that they be used to complement existing environmental indicators through incorporation into the suite of biological monitoring metrics [MT]. In addition to UK-based statutory agencies, we will develop links with US and South African project partners through our User Group to pursue similar statutory aims [LT].

Policymakers: The BioDAR outputs will allow for a new wave of evidence-based environmental policy by facilitating the evaluation of landscape-scale modifications. These might include evaluations based on our own analyses: the building of new towns, part-night street lighting schemes for energy saving, or the implementation of agri-environment schemes that are designed to help nature thrive alongside agricultural productivity [ST]. Additional analyses could be conducted to evaluate the implementation of bans on pesticides or herbicides, the introduction of genetically modified crops, or invasive species [MT]. Current monitoring of such events is limited severely by cost and logistics, but BioDAR will provide a dataset that is regularly updated and that can be investigated using open science pipelines provided at very low cost [MT,LT].

Conservation charities: Evidencing a need for conservation action, particularly of invertebrates, is a challenge for conservation NGOs that have limited resources. Despite the presence of a large number of monitoring schemes, few provide standardised data on trends in abundance and diversity. During the project, the BioDAR data will provide a general dataset of regular invertebrate monitoring that can be used to argue for overall trends in biodiversity and biomass that might be indicative of wider conservation issues. By testing for correlations between their own recording networks and the BioDAR trends data, NGOs may be able to supplement their own monitoring [MT].

Training for non-academic partners: Partners involved in the project come from the two sides of the interdisciplinary divide: radar physics and ecology. The Met Office is a Government agency that is managed by the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), while responsibility for environmental management falls to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Through online training in the processes and mechanisms of the BioDAR project, we will facilitate interdepartmental collaboration. We will also disseminate training in the interpretation of radar data to conservation NGOs. All training will be developed through online courses with in-person training at project workshops [ST].

General public: Public engagement with the 2017 story of a 75% decline in insect abundance over a 26-year period in Germany (>430k views, >1,700 social media shares of the original paper) demonstrates the interest in national and international conservation. Through our open data portal, the general public will have direct access to the datasets that underlie the BioDAR project. They will be able to view their local area and interrogate the dataset to understand more about their environment [ST].


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