New Shockwave Detection Technology Embedded in Tracking Collars to Protect Kenyan Elephants

Kenyan elephants will now get extra protection from poachers because of the new Vanderbilt University technology that has been embedded in their tracking collars. This new technology is made up of ballistic shockwave sensors that are capable of sending coordinates to authorities instantly after detecting gunshots.

Akos Ledeczi researches technology to use with smart phones that would give soliders the ability to pinpoint sniper locations. (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

This new system is considered to be the first use of shockwave detection technology in the intensified push to prevent illegal trafficking and thus save endangered African elephants.

Dubbed WIPER, the project is a collaboration between Vanderbilt Computer Engineering faculty and Colorado State University, which has embedded  GPS in tracking collars for years in order to study and protect elephants, killed by thousands for their ivory tusks.

Elephant poachers regularly use devices to silence the sound from their high-powered weapons, however the blast generates an acoustic shockwave, which indeed cannot be suppressed. WIPER technology helps in detecting a bullet flying by a protected elephant and in turn sends an alarm with its location.

Akos Ledeczi, Vanderbilt University Professor of Computer Engineering, collaborated with with George Wittemyer of Colorado State University, who is also Chairman of the Scientific Board of Save the Elephants. More than 1,000 elephants have been collared by the Kenya-based organization.

The rising demand for ivory in parts of the Far East has increased the slaughter of elephants and other iconic African animals. The growing demand, leads to a major price increase and this makes trafficking a profitable, yet risky, option. Save the Elephants assumes that 100,000 elephants were killed for their tusks between the years 2010 and 2012 alone as poaching efforts spread from the Central African forests to East Africa.

Ledeczi’s proficiency is in acoustic shooter detection, classification and localization. He and his team have received significant grants from DARPA that helped them build multiple wireless sensor nodes in order to detect and locate the source of gunfire.

On June 7th, WIPER got a major boost with the announcement of a $200,000 grant from the Vodafone Americas Foundation. In Vodafone’s annual Wireless Innovation Project, the technology was placed second out of eight finalists.  Announcement of the awards were made as part of the 2017 Social Innovation Summit in Chicago.

“Our aim is to make WIPER open-source, freely available to all collar manufacturers, so that it can become a common feature in all wildlife tracking devices,” said Ledeczi, who also has received a Vanderbilt Discover Grant to support the project.

Wildlife protection groups and authorities have already been using different methods to interrupt the ivory trade, including drones and planes capable of identifying animal carcasses and poacher blinds. However, these systems have their own limitations. Lower-cost quad-rotor UAVs (drones) can stay up for just 30 minutes. Fixed-wing UAVs together with sophisticated cameras are capable of remaining airborne for a longer period but are expensive to operate and buy.

WIPER requires only a few sensor collars per herd, since each one is capable of covering all wildlife within a 50-meter radius.

The Vodafone grant will help in supporting the development and field-testing for shot detection accuracy and power demands. The next step is to incorporate the sensor with an existing commercial GPS collar, developed by partner Savannah Tracking of Kenya.

This will be followed by field studies with collared elephants in Northern Kenya.  The focus here is battery power that can last for 12 months. At that point, the team believes that every year it will possible to provide sensor-enabled collars on 100 elephants.

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