A HAMPSHIRE zoo is using artificial intelligence to help heat an animal enclosure - in a world-first experiment aimed to reduce the park’s electricity bill and carbon footprint.

Marwell Zoo, which spends around £150,000 a year on electricity, has teamed up with technology company IBM to install a ‘smart’ heater for the Nyala antelope, which are native to Southern Africa and prefer warmer climates.

The technology uses an algorithm that relies on data from a grid of infrared sensors to detect if the antelope are in their pen.

If they are inside, and the temperature is too low, then the heating is automatically turned on.

So far, the algorithm is making the right decision about turning on the heating for the Nyala antelope 95 per cent of the time.

The zoo hopes the experiment will save 30-40 per cent on their heating bills , and if successful will be rolled out across animal houses in the zoo.

Duncan East, head of sustainability at Marwell Zoo, said:”We’re really excited to be working with IBM on this novel solution to heating control for large animal housing.

“Typically in zoos large-bodied animals are kept in houses where at least one door is left open at all times so the animals have access to their paddocks.This makes it very difficult, and expensive, to heat the whole house.

He continued: “Instead these animals are kept warm by infrared heat lamps which work by only heating the animals in front of the lamp. A number of lamps around the house provide good coverage but it can also result in heating areas with no animals if they have gone outside or are all together in a different part of the house.”

“Up until now it has not been possible to control these heat lamps by sensors so they are left on all night during the autumn and spring when nights are cold and 24 hours a day during winter “Current passive infrared movement sensors, as you might use on an outside light, don’t work as the heat will go off if the animal stops moving, for example if they go to sleep. This new type of active sensor detects the presence of the animal because it is warmer than the surroundings and keeps the heat on as long as there is a warm body present, regardless of movement.

“It means the organisation will have more money spare to spend on conservation activities or on further developments around the park.”

IBM’s chief technology officer for the UK, Prof. Andy Stanford-Clark said: “The algorithm we are using enables us to train the system using lots of examples. This has enabled us to create a system that can process data accurately, with very few false negatives.”There is a lot of interest from other zoos, waiting to see how effective this is, and what the potential savings are.”