A new surveillance network of smart cameras can triangulate the sound of gunshots, detect the vibration of approaching vehicles, and stealthily snap photos in complete darkness. Its (un)killer app: spotting activity associated with illegal poaching of endangered rhinos, elephants, and other wildlife in Kenya.
The next generation of camera "traps," designed by Cambridge Consultants for the Zoological Society of London and Kenya Wildlife Service, aim to help monitor the well being of wildlife all around the world—and to get ordinary people involved in identifying and tracking animals by making the near real-time images available through an "Instant Wild" smartphone app. The camouflaged cameras wirelessly transmit photos and other data to a nearby node capable of beaming the information around the world through the Iridium satellite network.
"The challenge was to create a remote monitoring system that was robust enough to withstand extreme weather conditions and animal attacks, and could be easily hidden in any surroundings—all within the available budget," said Richard Traherne, head of wireless at Cambridge Consultants, in a press release.
Such devices have been deployed in Kenya's Tsavo National Park as a first test of the technology's capabilities. The Zoological Society of London eventually hopes to place camera networks in locations such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Himalayas, and Antarctica.
Any motion by either animals or human poachers will trigger the smart cameras to snap multiple photos less than a second apart. Near-real-time transmission of the pictures means that park rangers could theoretically respond quickly to poacher activity whenever the system issues a warning corroborated by photographic evidence. That marks a huge advantage over existing camera traps that require physical retrieval of their images or can only transmit over cellular networks, NBC News reports.
The use of infrared LED flash technology allows the smart cameras to stay hidden while taking pictures in daylight and at night. Each camera also contains a Raspberry Pi micro-computer and its own long-lasting battery.
Google gave the related Instant Wild project, run by the Zoological Society of London, its Global Impact Award —and a $786 500 prize—earlier this year. A similar Google grant is helping the World Wildlife Fund to use drones for monitoring both animals and poachers.
Photo: Olivia Needham/ZSL
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.