Google is quietly funding an arsenal of high-tech law enforcement equipment, but it's not for the law enforcement you know. It's designed to protect African animals from illegal poachers.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) issued an update this week on their Wildlife Crime Technology Project, which received a $5 million Google Global Impact award at the end of 2012. Earlier this week, the WWF issued a report on how the money was used—and, in the process, gave a peak into a normally secretive world of drones and high-tech sensors.
Back in 2012, Co.Exist examined the WWF's plans to use drones to fight poachers in Africa and Asia. Since then, the WWF chose the African country of Namibia (who have been in the middle of an extensive fight against poachers) for their pilot project. For the last year, a series of innovative anti-poacher solutions were deployed in two national parks inside Namibia. Falcon UAVs equipped with a variety of cameras and sensors were used for daytime and nighttime reconnaissance flights, rhinoceroses were tagged with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, ground-based sensors connected to a real-time communication system were placed in key areas, and local officials tested a spatial reporting and monitoring platform that can track the movements of poachers, rangers, and animals.
The WWF isn't the only organization using drones to combat poachers. Last month, Co.Exist's Ariel Schwartz showed footage of drones protecting endangered animals in Kenya; that footage came from tech development firm Airware, which is working with Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
Crawford Allan, the director of TRAFFIC North America (a wildlife trade monitoring program run jointly by the WWF and World Conservation Union) says that the new system allows rangers in Namibia to communicate with each other much more quickly, and gives them access to some exciting new tech tools as well. "It's more than UAVs," he says. "it's integration of different technologies with UAVs in the air at the heart, using thermal energy to look for poachers."
The Wildlife Crime Technology Project's efforts in Namibia are done in coordination with the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, which will ultimately deploy the monitoring systems. Success will depend on quick communication and integration of various data streams, using low-maintenance technology that can work in rugged African areas and has a learning curve that can be mastered quickly by rangers (the poachers, many of whom are veterans of military conflicts in Angola and elsewhere, generally have extensive equipment and supplies). One important concern, Allan tells me, was integrating the data system to track rangers' vehicles with low-cost radio tags. But a big part of the network, which combines UAVs with RFID tags with mobile command centers, is simply enabling the rangers to do their job more quickly. The WWF's pilot project took place in national parks in Namibia's Zambezi Region.
A South African vendor supplied the WWF and the Namibian rangers with a radio frequency (RF) network that sends information from the UAVs, the RFID tags, and sensors at watering holes to a central location. The RF network is also integrated with an encrypted radio and digital communication system for rangers. This was an issue for the rangers in the past—in their particular test area in the Zambezi Region, they generally worked on a high plateau while the command center was in a valley below that inhibited communication. In our conversation, Allan voiced dismay at bureaucratic obstacles regarding the use of UAVs in Namibia. According to a WWF representative, "transferring technologies to the field, particularly Unmanned Aerial Systems with sensors subject to U.S. Department of Commerce export controls, takes special consideration. This process involves documenting that systems will be used only for conservation purposes."
While in Namibia to conduct testing, Allan saw some things that genuinely surprised him with the UAVs. "We were flying at night with these UAVs," he says. "We didn't realize it, but the UAV picked up a giraffe 50 feet away from us in bushes that we didn't know were there because we saw a giraffe showing up white and bright in the screen of the command center, this just shows you what its like. Your situational awareness in bush at night is very limited, especially when there aren't full moons. Poachers could be hiding in trees right behind them, but with UAV you can see poachers' body heat." With the drones, he adds, rangers can avoid running into poachers or lions at night.
These technologies interact with each other in unexpected ways. When the WWF's drones fly over rhinos, they are able to identify the rhinos on the ground via the new RFID microchips. The drones are also able to track movement of animals and migrations much more effectively than previous tools.
Technology can't do everything on its own. Pierre du Preez of the Namibian Ministry of the Environment and Tourism added that the technology needs to be used by rangers on the ground in near-real time for maximum effectiveness. The WWF's arsenal helps rangers do their job much more effectively but in the end, it's the human talent that counts. Allan hopes that the export issues the WWF is encountering with the UAVs will be resolved and pointed out another partnership, with the Richardson Fund, to bring high tech anti-poacher systems to the Congo. The poachers have technological capabilities of their own, thanks to their affiliation with international crime syndicates. But the rhinos and elephants of Africa now have an unexpected ally alongside the WWF: Google.