Wireless tech to wildlife’s rescue

4 mins read

Despite the best efforts of global conservation organisations, humans are spectacularly bad co-inhabitants of planet Earth for virtually every other species.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) there are currently more than 147,000 endangered species, 41,000 of which are threatened with extinction.

This rate of extinction is unprecedented in human history and is both a direct and indirect result of our actions, from climate change, pollution and habitat destruction to the more willful acts of poaching, territorial conflict and trophy hunting. If every species could vote on which animal to evict from the planet to make it a better place to live, humans would be on the first rocket out of here.

The problem is colossal. The World Population Clock has the current global population at 7,981,791,280 at time of writing, expanding by give or take 128,000 a day. Our population growth brings with it a desperate need for land - for agriculture, cities, roads, and mining - which along with the pollution and CO2 emissions we generate in the process, is devastating for any other animal that gets in our way.

After habitat destruction, the illegal hunting and harvesting of animals is the second biggest direct threat to species, according to the International Wildlife Defense (IWDF). For example, elephants, tigers, rhinos, and sea turtles are all being poached towards extinction. Left unchecked, African elephants will be gone by 2040 according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Currently one is killed by poachers every 26 minutes.

The statistics make grim reading but there is hope yet, thanks to an unlikely potential savior. The same wireless technology that helps us monitor our everyday health and fitness, that tracks the whereabouts and well-being of both people and assets, and that has played a critical role in negotiating our path through the COVID-19 pandemic, is now widely being deployed to help conservation efforts, to try and undo the damage we’ve already done to endangered animal populations.

Technology to the rescue

Tracking wild animals isn’t easy. Not even if you screech like a howler monkey at 140 decibels - equivalent to someone shouting directly in your ear - or are the size of an African elephant. But tracking African elephants was the specific goal of a recent initiative called the ElephantEdge challenge, which aims to replace traditional and manual methods of elephant monitoring with a connected alternative.

The ElephantEdge challenge is a joint enterprise of Avnet community, Hackster.io and pro-conservation organisation Smart Parks - in combination with leading technology partners including the likes of Nordic Semiconductor and Microsoft. The design competition asked developers to create ML models using Edge Impulse Studio that could be installed onto wirelessly connected collars integrating vision, audio and motion sensors, as well as Web-based tracking dashboards using Avnet's IoTConnect, an advanced unified IoT platform featuring sensors and gateways.

The combined solution could help park rangers use the data to track, monitor, and receive on-demand alerts about the elephants. For example, camera vision models could monitor the risk of poaching and predators or elephant movements; accelerometer data models could predict and classify common elephant behaviours; and audio data models could detect elephant musth (a periodic condition in male elephants characterised by highly aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones) data and mood swings.

While this technology is directed at African elephants, it has potential and application wherever monitoring animal behaviour could benefit conservation efforts, and it’s not the only example. Nordic Semiconductor has also been working closely with a South African company called iSiTech, that earlier this year launched a smart animal tracking and management system that is designed to combat livestock theft and wildlife poaching, as well remotely monitor animal health and behaviour. The system combines tags that can be easily attached to the ears of livestock or wildlife and are equipped with temperature and movement sensors as well as GPS capability.

From a web-based platform, users can set-up geofencing of feeding areas with go and no-go zones, as well as review captured sensor data to provide alerts if the animal’s behaviour is indicative of any issues. For example, low movement could indicate illness, or if it is outside of the set boundary, the animal may be lost or have been stolen. The system can be configured to provide customized ‘real time’ alerts to the user’s smartphone, PC or tablet for rapid response to emergency situations.

In addition to the sensors, the tags integrate Nordic’s nRF52840 Bluetooth LE SoC and nRF25140 RF Front End Module, together enabling the solar-powered tags to report animal data to a Cloud-connected gateway over a line-of-sight distance of up to 3 km, every two minutes. The ability to report the data every couple of minutes is vital because it allows animal owners or conservation authorities to respond rapidly in the event of an emergency situation and is made possible thanks to the SoC’s ultra-low power consumption.

Longer range tracking solutions

For animal tracking over even longer distances, cellular IoT connectivity is being successfully deployed in a growing number of use cases. LTE-M is perfect for medium-throughput applications requiring low power, low latency and/or mobility, such as tracking animals over wide areas. The achievable range is up to 15 km depending on the application, and in the case of Nordic’s nRF9160 low power SiP, tracking devices can perpetually operate on harvested solar energy alone, an obvious advantage in applications where changing or charging a battery on a tag attached to a wild animal is either impractical, impossible, or downright dangerous.

One example is tracking reindeer across the arctic tundra. The semi-domesticated animals are an important source of nutrition, clothing and income for polar indigenous communities, and as such arctic peoples in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Mongolia and China herd some 2.5 million of the animals across four million km2 of land.

To keep track of the health and whereabouts of reindeer, farmers can now use lightweight ear tags offering an integrated LTE-M/NB-IoT modem and GNSS, application processor, antenna, as well as motion and thermal sensors. The tags autonomously measure reindeer activity using the onboard sensors, and report every hour any significant changes that indicate either illness, injury or predator attack, as well as the animal’s location enabling rapid rescue and treatment.

What happens next?

This application of wireless technology and smart animal tracking devices are an important step in helping keep both wild and commercial animals safe and secure, but more needs to be done, particularly for the preservation of endangered species. The technology exists, the imperative is clear, now the human will to deploy it at scale must follow.

The stakes are high. Every year up to 100,000 extinctions occur. We don’t know exactly how many because many species are lost before they are even discovered. What we do know is one mammal is to blame in the vast majority of cases - humans. With the help of wireless technology, we may just be able to reverse some of the damage already done.

Author details: Clay Hine, Business Development Manager – Asset Tracking, Nordic Semiconductor