IoT technology for wildlife conservation

IoT technology for wildlife conservation

Digital Catapult is working with SMEs to develop new technology for wildlife conservation at London Zoo. We interviewed Sophie Maxwell, ZSL’s Conservation Technology Lead to gain insight into the work that they are doing to combat the decline in animal populations around the world.

Technology that could be used for global wildlife conservation efforts has been available for many years, but the high cost has inhibited widespread take-up. The emergence of innovative and low cost IoT solutions is changing this, allowing information about wildlife and habitats to be amassed for a much lower cost. Additionally while conservationists have been gathering this data for decades, IoT is enabling information to be collected faster, while artificial intelligence means the data can be mined more effectively and in real-time, to be used to make important and timely conservation decisions.

Technology has the power to help protect our world’s wildlife. It can’t happen soon enough: species populations of all vertebrate species decreased by 58%* between 1970 and 2012 and that number could hit 67% by 2020.

ZSL (Zoological Society of London), based at ZSL London Zoo, was one of the first organisations in the world to set up a team dedicated to developing technology for conservation back in 2011, and is at the forefront of this field. ZSL’s field personnel feed back requirements to the team, which then creates the equipment to meet those requirements. This is because existing tools designed for other purposes are often based on old legacy systems or are simply too expensive to be a viable option.

Sophie Maxwell, ZSL’s Conservation Technology Lead, explains: “As an international conservation charity with limited resources, we are constantly looking for ways to develop sustainable funding models as well as affordable technology, collaborating with philanthropists and businesses to develop these. By staying at the cutting edge of technological development, we hope to be able to turn the tide of species loss and protect animals and their habitats worldwide from the myriad threats they face.”

A tracking tag for turtles developed by ZSL demonstrates just what can be achieved: the team’s work is bringing down the unit cost from $2,000 to just under $100, which makes it a much more cost-effective proposition to tag large numbers of turtles so their behaviour and patterns can be effectively monitored.

While ZSL’s work is largely targeted at conservationists and protected area managers globally, product development and much of the testing is done right here in the UK. This is being facilitated by Digital Catapult’s Things Connected LPWAN network for IoT testing, which has a base station at ZSL.

One of ZSL’s flagship products is Instant Detect (ID), which combines covert sensors, camera traps, acoustic sensors and underwater acoustic sensors to collect data that is analysed by software developed in partnership with the UK’s Nominet. ID effectively creates an alarm system that provides real-time alerts for conservationists and law enforcement so they can immediately respond to threat to wildlife, such as poaching on land and illegal fishing at sea. The data gathered also enables monitoring of animal behaviour and movements in the specific area, so the animals can be better understood and therefore better protected.

The first version was trialled in 2015 in seven different locations, from monitoring penguins in Antarctica to helping protect rhinos and other endangered animals from poaching in Kenya. The results were so encouraging that ZSL is now working on a second version that will become available next year. Improvements are being made to increase the range of the system, the number of sensors that can be deployed and the power capacity, as well as to bring down the cost. The team is also working on making ID modular, so that it can also work with different backhaul methods in the future, such as television white space (TVWS), in addition to the Iridium satellite network it currently uses.

ZSL’s research into the use of TVWS was done in collaboration with Google. The pilot proved the technical viability of tapping unused channels in the broadcast TV spectrum to provide wireless connectivity over a large area and in non-line-of-sight scenarios, although commercial rollout is currently inhibited by the lack of chips and radio technology.

Of course, wildlife conservation isn’t limited to the plains of Africa or the vast expanses of the world’s oceans. Seals and seagulls aren’t nearly as exotic as rhinos and penguins, but IoT is being used here in the UK to help tackle declining populations of both. ZSL and partners developed Mataki, an open source platform for tracking animal movement and behaviour and the RSPB’s Seabird Tracking and Research (STAR) team was an early user. It began using Mataki tags in addition to conventional tags in order to get data from difficult to access colonies, and get more data than is possible from conventional tags with less disturbance to the birds. Meanwhile, the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews is using Vodafone’s machine-to-machine (M2M) network to collect data from tagged seals as part of a study into declining populations that will inform future research directions.

As the price of technology comes down and the rate of innovation gathers pace, there are new possibilities offered by the IoT extending out of our homes, working places and cities into our natural environment. ZSL is already working with key technology partners and is looking to extend its partner base across the private sector, academia and other organisations in order to harness technology innovation to better protect wildlife. With growing interest in saving our planet and increased funding, there are numerous opportunities for UK SMEs to get in on the action.

ZSL is part of the global Zoohackathon initiative and will hold its second event on October 6-8. 100 coders and technologists will spend the weekend at London Zoo to come up with innovative technology solutions for conservation issues, with a focus on the illegal trade of wildlife. It is free to take part but registration is required. For more information contact Kate Moses from the Conservation Technology Team on kate.moses@zsl.org.

*Further information about the decline of animal populations can be found in the Living Planet report published by ZSL and WWF.

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Jem Henderson
weasel.jem@gmail.com
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