A.I. "predator" drones can now spot and track illegal poachers

Poachers trade on a black market estimated to total $40 billion. It’s impossible to stop every poacher, but new technology could bolster the efforts of conservationists by putting a set of eyes in the sky.

 

U.S. Military, Creative Commons


Poaching takes a brutal toll on the world’s wildlife every year. By the thousands, rhinos are for killed for their horns, elephants for their ivory, and tigers for their bones and exotic pelts. To protect these animals, rangers and conservationists must monitor enormous swaths of land, day and night, looking for poachers who trade on a black market estimated to total $40 billion. It’s impossible to stop every poacher.

New technology could bolster the efforts of conservationists, though, by putting a set of eyes in the sky. Air Shepherd, a conservation group, recently field tested an AI drone system that’s able to automatically detect humans and animals through infrared thermal imaging. The SPOT (Systematic POacher deTector) system, developed by researchers from Carnegie Mellon, the University of Southern California, and Microsoft, can be operated on a common laptop with a wireless internet connection, allowing park rangers to get advanced knowledge of poachers’ movements so they can be intercepted. It could also provide park rangers a heads-up in situations where they’re heading toward a large group of armed poachers.

The researchers trained the system through deep learning, a branch of A.I. that seeks to enable computers to learn and recognize patterns in the world — images of animals and poachers, in this case. First, the SPOT system was shown a series of images in which humans had marked where the animals and humans were. Then, the system used that information to learn about what to look for on its mission. 

paper published by the researchers in November, 2017 describes the deep-learning process in greater detail. 

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