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#Connectivity & IoT

Using the IoT to protect endangered species

Technical Innovation
4 Mins.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is making our lives simpler, safer, and more connected. However, it has applications beyond our human sphere. The IoT is already being used around the world to protect the lives of animals, from bees in their hives to highly endangered rhinos. Its utility in protecting endangered species puts it in the spotlight, but in reality, all beings can benefit from it.

The death of Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhinoceros in 2018,1 served to focus minds around the world on a pressing issue: the critically endangered status of species around the world. 

Sudan was born in the 1970s, when the rest of his species was being decimated by poaching that fed the demand for rhino horn in distant places. He left behind his daughter and a granddaughter. With no males left alive, the species is functionally extinct. While there are hopes that stored sperm, living females, and advances in IVF could help the species make a comeback, the death of Sudan – a “gentle giant,” according to those who knew him – was a shocking reminder of the ways in which human interventions have negatively shaped the world around us. 

It is only fitting that we try to right the balance with all means at our disposal. In the fight to secure the futures of the world’s most threatened animals, technology can be a force for good. This includes the Internet of Things (IoT). 

“There is a danger of trivializing the importance of the Internet of Things through examples that are used to stereotype it – for example, the ‘fridge that orders fresh milk,’” wrote Sir Mark Walport, the chief scientific adviser to the government of the United Kingdom at the time, in 2014.2 He went on to say that the IoT had the “potential to have a greater impact on society than the first digital revolution.”3 The IoT has grown exponentially since he wrote these words, and the underpinning technologies have gotten a lot better. 

Let’s look at some ways in which his prediction from a decade ago is being shown to be true in the context of wildlife conservation. In order to do that, let’s first consider why the IoT is well-suited to this particular task.

Advantages of IoT

  1. IoT makes continuous, non-obtrusive monitoring a reality. To take one example, technical innovations such as long-range (LoRa) sensors on animals provide near-real-time monitoring across values like movement, temperature, and even stress activity. 

  2. Advances in integrating non-terrestrial satellite networks with terrestrial networks (5G and others) are opening up previously uncovered areas of the globe to connectivity, enabling the IoT in those places. This makes tracking animals that cover huge distances – migratory birds, for instance, or certain sorts of sea creatures – feasible.

  3. The IoT works across many sources and means of gathering information. Crucially, all that information can be integrated seamlessly via platforms that already exist. The quantity of information available makes patterns and trends easier to identify. The range of information gathering runs the gamut from sensors on individual (and groups of) animals to smartphones crowdsourcing the locations of specific animals.

  4. Information can be made public and shared almost instantly. This empowers local communities and other interested parties to get involved in conserving their own environments.

Keeping these in mind, here are some ways in which the IoT is helping endangered animals in their struggle to survive.

Advances in animal tagging

LoRa sensors have the potential to be game-changers when applied to conservation of animals that have large ranges in places with limited connectivity. The sensors operate over vast areas using existing mobile networks, and have long battery lives. They don’t have to be frequently changed like traditional radio collars, an expensive process that can be traumatic for the animals concerned. Rhinos in South Africa are already benefiting from this model.

 In places where there is no coverage – ranges that stretch across borders, in conflict areas, or even the open ocean – advances in integrating satellite connectivity with existing terrestrial networks open up new possibilities. Given the lower latency and greater bandwidth offered by low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, IoT services are now more cost-efficient. 

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) establishes the protocol for standardizing integration of satellite and terrestrial networks. Sensors with battery-optimized iSIMs, connected to cellular-compliant satellite networks, would be able to cover the whole world. In addition, such devices can be smaller and less intrusive thanks to the smaller form factor of the iSIM.

Tracking herds to predict behavior

Animal behaviorists have worked out that herd behavior holds data that can reveal information on a variety of issues, including the possible locations of poachers. The animals in question behave differently when faced with natural predators, such as lions, on the one hand, and human beings on the other. Using sensors, real-time information can be logged from herds, as opposed to from individual animals.

Given advances in gleaning patterns from available data, conservationists can make on-the-spot decisions from that information that save lives on the ground. In southern Africa, herds of prey animals such as impalas and zebras have been tagged and monitored, with a view to learning more about them and their habitat, and also protecting more endangered animals like rhinos and elephants.

A woman installs a wildlife camera in the forest

Continual perimeter monitoring

CCTV cameras are old news – instead, think thermal imaging and seismic sensors. Even a low-level breach registers immediately, and a patrol can be dispatched to check for threats. Reserve Area Networks (RANs) have been set up in various parks in and around South Africa to help collect and analyze this data, so rangers can be better utilized.

Crowdsourcing to locate and protect

One of the issues in conserving shy marine animals is finding them in order to gather information about their movements and habits. The ocean is a big place. Enter technology: one positive side-effect of the proliferation of smartphones is fishermen can be asked to take photos of specific animals when they see them. Further, marine communities taking part in these activities are empowered to be a positive part of their ecosystems. AI can be used to analyze all those images and glean increasingly accurate findings, locating and predicting future movements. The dugong, a shy, vulnerable marine mammal better known as the “sea cow,” has been tracked in this fashion in waters around the Philippines.

Geofencing threats

While not endangered, reindeer herds in countries such as Norway and Finland lose significant numbers to accidents with fast-moving trains. Research has indicated that tagging herds helps generate information that can be passed on to train drivers; they can be told to slow down when a herd is predicted to cross the tracks. In effect, the track itself is being geofenced. This is of particular importance across borders, as reindeer move without regard to national boundaries.

Helping honeybees flourish

While honeybees are not, strictly speaking, endangered either, their populations are threatened in various places, such as in North America. As prolific pollinators, bees of any sort are critical to the health of ecosystems around the world. Sensors within honeybee hives track values such as temperature, humidity, and even weight, so optimal conditions can be maintained in order to promote hive health, and thus the larger landscape.

Additionally, sensors can monitor the presence and behavior of aggressive pest species such as wasps and certain hornets. Once an invader is detected, the hive can be relocated to protect it.

It is apparent that many species of animals, from tiny insects to huge mammals, live threatened existences around the world. Not all of these populations will recover, unfortunately. But technology such as AI and the IoT make positive interventions possible, and these can have measurable benefits. The IoT can deliver a lot more than smart kitchen appliances, as Sir Mark Walport presciently pointed out a decade ago. As the IoT evolves, new use cases continue to be revealed, many of which are of fundamental importance to our changing world.

Key takeaways

  • The IoT can pull information quicker, less invasively, and less expensively than previous iterations of such data collection.
  • The IoT collects information across many means and platforms, and makes it available in near-real-time.
  • Trends can be inferred and interventions made before a threat arises. The information can be communicated quickly and made available to whoever needs it, including communities on the ground who are most connected to the creatures in question.
  1. Northern white rhino: Last male Sudan dies in Kenya, BBC, 2018

  2. The Internet of Things: making the most of the Second Digital Revolution, Government Office for Science, UK, 2014

  3. Ibid.

Published: 30/04/2024

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