Neurala fights poaching in Africa with AI-powered drones

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Deep learning startup Neurala Inc. is applying its technology to a partnership with the Lindbergh Foundation that aims to combat illegal elephant poaching in Africa with artificial intelligence-powered drones.

Despite increased efforts to combat poaching in several African countries, the statistics remain rather grim. The Lindbergh Foundation says more than 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa from 2010 to 2012, with a further 40,000 killed in 2013. It reckons an elephant is killed once every 14 minutes in Africa – a rate that will see the animals extinct in just 10 years. Rhino poaching, meanwhile, has increased by 9,000 percent in South Africa since 2007, with one slaughtered every nine to 11 hours, the foundation said.

To respond to the situation, the Lindbergh Foundation has created the Air Shepherd program in partnership with Neurala that aims to combat poaching through the use of aerial drone surveillance. The idea is simple enough: Use drones to spot poachers before they can reach their targets, then send out teams of rangers to intercept them.

Air Shepherd’s drones operate at night, flying silently above the African savanna seeking out their targets. The drones are well-equipped for the task, operating with five-hour batteries, infrared cameras, onboard control systems, sensors for finding poachers and live video feeds.

The drones are also powered by Neurala’s AI platform, which can learn how to identify objects of interest. Its platform sifts through hours of video captured by the drones in real-time, pinpointing animals, poachers and vehicles from the skies.

Neurala’s key advantage in this respect is that its drones can do all of this without processing data in servers running in the cloud. That’s because the company recently made a key breakthrough in deep learning to enable computing at the network edge, resulting in reduced network latency and better overall performance.

“This is a terrific example of how AI technology can be a vital force for good,” said Neurala Chief Executive Max Versace.

The Air Shepherd drones currently operate in four separate locations – the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in South Africa, the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, and the Liwonde National Park and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in Malawi. Air Shepherd also works with the World Wildlife Fund, using its drones to spot poachers trying to poison watering holes in Hwange National Park.

Image: Air Sheperd