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APEM flies high on environmental innovation

An environmental consultancy is soaring to fresh heights as its airborne bird-spotting technology attracts worldwide interest. APEM, which was spun out of Manchester University in 1987 and is now based in Stockport, specialises in surveying marine and freshwater environments for water companies, local authorities and other clients. It has pioneered the development of imaging software that allows its cameras to identify and count different species of birds and sea mammals from planes flying overhead. APEM has bought a fleet of three planes, based at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, which it uses to survey aquatic environments, for example to assess the impact of offshore wind farm schemes. The technology allows habitats to be surveyed without the wildlife being disturbed.

Previously, surveys would be based on estimates compiled from visual research by biologists in boats. Company founder Dr Keith Hendry said: “We are working with a camera manufacturer to take their most advanced equipment and take it beyond where they thought it could go.” “We have our own software programmers who are developing applications for extracting data from photographs that can’t be seen with the human eye.” “We can fly high above the height at which the populations would be disturbed, covering huge areas and accurately honing in on where the birds are.” Dr Hendry is now considering offers from the US, Germany and Denmark to either license the technology or establish APEM operations abroad. The company also has four labs – a fifth is scheduled to open in Cardiff this spring – which analyse water samples from across Europe to check for the presence of invertebrates which act as environmental indicators. Clients include local authorities, water and power companies.

APEM has been responsible for managing water quality at Salford Quays so it could be used in the 2002 Commonwealth Games triathlon. Since then, fish populations have returned to the once-polluted waterway. In 2009, APEM’s turnover leapt from £2.9m to £4.2m, while staff numbers increased from 48 to 93. Around 25 per cent of APEM’s revenues come from its laboratories, with 40 per cent from remote surveys and the rest from consultancy work. Dr Hendry said: “Our competition have really struggled with the recession but we are anticipating 10 to 15 per cent growth this year, and I don’t see any reason why that won’t be achieved.” “We have achieved growth by sticking to our own niche and staying in control of the whole process, from employing our own pilots to standing up at public inquiries to present the results.”

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Ben Roeves