Tech prize finalists promote collaboration to fight extinction

  • Conservation X Labs recently announced 20 finalists for the Con X Tech Prize. As finalists, each project receives $3,500 seed money to develop ideas that may be early stage or broad in scope.
  • Among the finalists, the Wild N.O.S.E technology will use olfactory data to detect animals or animal parts and help stem trafficking. LobsterLift presents a lineless lobster pot – to prevent the entanglement so dangerous to whales. The Right Whale Auto-Detect project listens for and identifies whale calls and then warns ships of whales in the area.
  • These projects express Con X Tech values, such as collaboration, working across disciplines and thinking big enough to deliver transformative conservation solutions with “exponential impact.” One finalist will be selected in November 2018 to receive the $20,000 grand prize.

The non-profit Conservation X Labs (CXL) recently announced twenty finalists for the Con X Tech Prize – subtitled “Hacking Extinction.” The finalists will receive $3,500 to continue developing their projects, which include embedded image-sorting for camera traps, marine-specific animal tags, and a “Fitbit for Orangutans.” Teams are building databases, devices, and algorithms. And more importantly, they are mixing experts in aerospace with experts in fisheries and biologists with engineers.

A young orangutan in Sabah, Malaysia. With forest increasingly converted to oil palm and other industrial agriculture, would a biologger help conservationists learn when orangutans are stressed or how far they must travel to find food? Image by Sue Palminteri/Mongabay.

“You could get extra points in the evaluation if you had people from different disciplines on the team,” said Cassie Hoffman, director of Field Operations at CXL and spokesperson for the prize. Hopefully, according to Hoffman, these projects will encourage researchers to work on problems outside their areas of expertise.

“Bringing people from these different fields presents such challenges I think –different vocabularies, sometimes different cultures,” Hoffman says. As a social scientist, Hoffman saw cross-discipline communication issues right away while working with engineers. “Engineers will say, ‘We engineers solve problems.’ Social scientist will say, ‘How do you solve poverty?’”

Promoting new, disruptive technologies

Anthony Giordano, chief conservation officer at S.P.E.C.I.E.S* and a member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, admits that he sought out the challenge (as a biologist) of working with an engineer on the Wild N.O.S.E. project, another Con X Tech Prize finalist.

“I frequently find myself putting myself out of my comfort zone because I realize if I don’t do that, I’m not putting myself in the path of finding solutions,” Giordano says.  “There’s no question we need to think more broadly. That’s what the [CXL] digital maker space is all about. Bringing in engineers to solve conservation problems, this could be potentially transformative.”

One of the hopes at CXL and its digital maker space is that conservation challenges will inspire mathematicians, programmers, engineers to make a career in solving problems for conservation.

Giordano expects that the technical people on his team will also learn from him – fieldwork poses some unique puzzles. For example, a perfectly functional camera trap can start delivering occluded or empty images.

“When you put camera trap out in the world, they don’t realize that’s a living environment.” Within three months, Giordano explains, the camera could become buried in overgrowth.

Pangolins are cryptic mammals that use trees and burrows, making them difficult to detect through video and audio, so Wild N.O.S.E. is exploring scent detection. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Giordano’s project is exploratory and in the spirit of thinking big. The Wild N.O.S.E. (Next Generation Olfactory and Scent Evaluator) team is exploring the idea of an affordable handheld device that might detect:

  • wildlife, including cryptic or burrowing species, for needed research
  • animal parts, headed for illegal markets
  • hunters in areas where hunting is illegal
  • invasive species at low levels, for timely intervention
  • places where animal parts have been, such as a stash removed by poachers

The team has left all possibilities open as they assess the olfactory sensing technology currently in use; for example, the orthogonal (using multiple, varied sensors) handheld detector firefighters use to alert of potentially toxic fumes.

“We’re fairly sure that the technology for something like this already exists,” says Giordano. “Can we adapt it for our purposes?”

Those involved with CXL are betting on technology’s potential for “exponential impact.” With species like the North Atlantic right whale numbering fewer than 500 individuals, all vulnerable to lobster lines and shipping collisions, technology seems to offer a rare hope against the ticking clock of extinction.

Another of the 20 finalists, the Right Whale Auto-Detection project uses a hydrophone, passive listening, and deep neural networks to identify right whale calls and alert ships before a deadly ship strike occurs.

A North Atlantic right whale, of which fewer than 500 remain. Image by Moira Brown, Courtesy of New England Aquarium.

“The scary thing is even if we stop [striking whales] now,” says Mark Henderson, spokesperson for the Right Whale Auto-Detection project, “we’re going to have a couple of decades of problems.”

The Auto-Detection unit will be a retrained version of the team’s successful PoachStopper, which was trained through machine learning to detect and identify boat motors.

“Not only can you tell things about the motor – the size, the make, or model – but you can fingerprint individual motors – the computer can tell the difference between my motor and your motor.”

The group hopes that once PoachStopper is retrained, it will be able to fingerprint right whales the way it identifies motors.

“Our hypothesis: if we can fingerprint the animals, then we can probably figure out other information based on the sound that they make,” Henderson says.

He mentions it may even be possible to collaborate with a technology solution used by Ocean Alliance, the SnotBot.

“It’s like a drone with a bunch of Petri dishes stuck to it that flies over a whale and waits for the whale to spout,” Henderson says, “and catches the spout and flies it back for analysis. It turns out that in the snot of the whale, basically like sneezing, they can find pregnancy hormones. They can find enzymes that have to do with [the whale’s] overall health. They can find all sorts of information that they used to have to harpoon the animal to get.”

Spin-off collaborations form a core goal for the Con X community. Among the current finalists, the spirit of collaboration extends outward to some unlikely partners, those invested in wildlife endangering activities. Support from the lobster fishing industry, for example, has helped this team move forward in their development process.

“If you talk to a lot of people [in the shipping industry], they’re on board,” Henderson says. “A whale strike is extremely costly. You can lose up to 2 million dollars minimum if you strike a whale with a big container ship. You miss deadlines; you have to spend an afternoon with the Coast Guard. More importantly, the whale is injured or dead.”

Apart from 20 prizewinners, Conservation X Labs funds other groundbreaking projects in keeping with the collaborative ethic, such as the LobsterLift, a “lobster trap that doesn’t also trap whales.”

Conservation X Labs-featured project team presenting LobsterLift at the Make For The Planet competition, IMCC5 in Kuching, Malaysia. The trap, buoy, and air tank are all visible. Image courtesy of Conservation X Labs.

Because “80 percent of right whale entanglements over 30 years have been due to non-mobile pots and nets,” says their proposal, the team has been developing a lineless lobster trap that will rise on signal, as a balloon fills with air. “Our technology enables lobstermen to keep fishing the way they always have – important for encouraging adoption.” Collaboration with stakeholders in the lobster fishing industry facilitates adoption of new technologies.

The $3,500 finalist awards are intended to support exploratory early-stage research because, Hoffman says, investors often neglect that area of funding. Feasibility, according to Hoffman, is more of a “second round” priority for Con X Tech. In the second round, 20 finalists will boil down to one winner of the $20,000 grand prize, to be announced in November.

*S.P.E.C.I.E.S. – The Society for the Preservation of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study

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