When Poachers Go To Kill An Elephant, These AI-Powered Drones Are Already There To Help Stop Them


Jay Cassano, Fast Company

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Some 40,000 elephants in central and southern Africa are killed every year for their ivory. The situation isn’t much better for rhinoceroses, with 2015 on track to be the deadliest year for the animals. And unlike an elephant’s ivory tusks, rhinoceros horns are mostly made of the same stuff as human fingernails. Nonetheless, poaching now poses a grave risk to the survival of both creatures.

“At this rate, all elephants and rhinos in the wild in Africa will be dead in less than 10 years,” says John Petersen, chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation, which focuses on efforts to balance technology and the environment.

The Lindbergh Foundation had previously helped the Kenya Wildlife Service acquire planes to help keep tabs on poachers. Unfortunately, traditional aircraft can be shot down much more easily than drones, a problem that was also confronted by humanitarians trying to air-drop humanitarian aid to Syria. And the pilots couldn’t fly as well or see the ground as clearly at night, which is when virtually all the poaching activity happens. So now the foundation is turning to drones as part of an initiative they are calling Air Shepherd. With infrared cameras, drones could effectively observe both animals and poachers at night.

But Air Shepherd is doing more than just outfitting drones with cameras and hoping for the best. Drones are just one piece of the puzzle. Air Shepherd also uses a targeted analytics system developed by the University of Maryland to predict where poachers will be before they get there. Researchers at University of Maryland originally developed their predictive engine for the Department of Defense to anticipate where roadside bombs would be placed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they’ve adapted it to the poaching problem and rechristened it APE, or the Anti-Poaching Engine.

APE works by developing a database and mission profile for each area with animals endangered by poachers. It relates forecasted weather patterns, topography, infrastructure in the area, and information about past poaching attempts in the area to anticipate poachers’ next moves. All of that data is then processed to generate a flight pattern for a set of drones. With the drones acting as eyes in the sky, Air Shepherd hopes to be the advance scouts for rangers charged with protecting elephants and rhinoceroses, but who can’t be everywhere at once.

In the coming weeks, Lindbergh Foundation will launch its first team in Botswana. By the end of the summer, they hope to be operational in at least one other country—likely Namibia, Zambia, or Tanzania.

“Air Shepherd has the distinct potential of keeping these magnificent animals from going extinct at the hands of poachers,” says Petersen. “Where the components of the Air Shepherd program have been tested, the poaching has stopped. That’s something that none of the other laudable efforts to stop poaching can claim.”