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UDS's Air Shepherd launches new operations in southern Africa

An Air Shepherd drone.UAV & Drone Solutions’ (UDS) Air Shepherd programme, developed to protect elephants and rhinos from poaching by using drones, has started new operations in Botswana.

The announcement on 8 June coincides with the unveiling of an alliance with the University of South Carolina’s (USC’s) Artificial Intelligence (AI) department in the development of a poacher detection program called SPOT — Systematic POacher deTector, capable of spotting poachers in less than half a second. This new technology will be implemented to assist all Air Shepherd teams moving forward.

Initially, computer scientists were using AI and game theory to anticipate the poachers’ haunts but took it a step further by applying artificial intelligence and deep learning to spot poachers in near real-time. A team of USC computer scientists, led by USC Viterbi School of Engineering PhD student, Elizabeth Bondi, in Professor Milind Tambe’s lab labelled 180 000 humans and animals in infrared videos using a labelling tool they developed to expedite the process. The team used these labelled images and leveraged an existing deep learning algorithm, known as Faster RCNN, that they modified to teach a computer to automatically distinguish infrared images of humans from infrared images animals.

Additionally, the scientists working on this algorithm modified it for speed by leveraging the power of Microsoft Azure and the cloud to build a virtual computer that could accelerate the process. An alternative solution was also developed to allow for spotty interconnectivity in rural areas.

“SPOT will ease the burden on those using drones for anti-poaching by automatically detecting people and animals in infrared imagery in near real-time,” said lead author Bondi.

Air Shepherd, originally developed by the Lindbergh Foundation in conjunction with South Africa-based UDS, has flown in multiple African countries, including South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe and now Botswana. The Lindbergh Foundation then transferred ownership of Air Shepherd to UDS.

“With more than 30,000 flight hours, Air Shepherd drone teams are pushing the boundaries of drone technology by flying 25 km beyond the line of sight and at night—when poachers operate,” UDS said.

The program uses intelligence from multiple sources while infrared-capable drones fly silently. Previously, poachers were spotted on the ground by an Air Shepherd team member monitoring infrared camera footage from the drones all night, which can cause fatigue. The SPOT program will remove that challenge from the equation by automatically detecting poachers. Rangers are then sent to intercept them.

UDS said Air Shepherd drones offer more protection for rangers who, while patrolling at night, are exposed to a high level of danger from armed poachers and wild animals.

Air Shepherd’s experience on the ground has shown that when they are flying drones, poaching stops, the company said.

“This SPOT technology is a game changer for us and we are thrilled with this USC alliance,” said Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg, co-founder of UDS and head of the Air Shepherd program. “Air Shepherd is collaborating on new and improved technology every day so we can help bring an end to poaching—at some point, the risk will be too much for the bad guys.”


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