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A field biologist and tech wiz push the limits of conservation technology

Powell and Becker

George Powell and Eric Becker

In November 2014, George Powell, a senior advisor on wildlife technology at WWF, approached a young engineer named Eric Becker with a challenge: “There’s a large wildlife sanctuary in East Africa that we need to monitor for poachers. What can you come up with?”

Becker turned to military technology, searching for existing security systems that might work. None of them were capable of monitoring humans while ignoring wildlife—a crucial requirement, given the vast number of animals in the park—and all were wildly expensive.

But he did find an infrared camera made by FLIR, a thermal imaging systems company, with some core parts that seemed promising. Nine months later, Becker brought Powell an entirely new camera system, designed around that core. He trained the device to focus on humans, tested it, tweaked it, tested it again, and by April 2016, 14 of the cameras were up and running in the park. In just a week, the new system caught two intruders, and encroachment attempts have been down since then.

The project also led WWF to hire Becker, who’d been collaborating with Powell as a consultant, full-time. Both now work for the organization’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project (WCTP), an initiative designed to create cutting-edge technologies to combat wildlife poaching. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different: Powell is a 69-year-old biologist who’s spent most of his life slogging through remote forests and wetlands, laboring to improve conservation projects through rigorous science. Becker is a 29-year-old tech wiz who’s happiest in his basement lab, tinkering on circuit boards.

Now, working together on the WCTP, they’ve become a kind of odd couple of conservation technology. “A lot of conservation groups are at the mercy of whatever technology’s already on the market,” says Colby Loucks, who directs the WCTP. “But suddenly our team has the ability to design all this amazing tech because we have an in-house engineer. And he’s working with a field expert who can figure out what people on the ground actually need.”

Through those combined skill sets, Loucks adds, the WCTP isn’t just changing what equipment is available for rangers and environmentalists: They’re revolutionizing how it even gets created.

Becker with drone©Nathan Mitchell/WWF-US

“I just love the opportunity to think about these seemingly impossible problems and try and use tech to solve them. Getting to design tech tools for people working in the field is one of the coolest parts of my job.”

Eric Becker
WWF

The Wildlife Crime Technology Project was launched in late 2012, through a three-year, $5 million grant from Google.org that has since been extended to 2017. The project’s vision was ambitious: Find wildlife sanctuaries in Africa and Asia beleaguered by poaching. Design new technologies that could significantly boost their protection. And make each one user-friendly, cheap, and easy to replicate.

Most of the WCTP’s early energies focused on unmanned aerial vehicles (also called UAVS or, more commonly, drones). By 2014, the project had evaluated multiple UAVs, zeroed in on one particular model, and trained a group of Namibian park rangers how to use it—all groundbreaking work, and new territory for a conservation NGO. (The WCTP is currently testing the usefulness of UAVs for antipoaching work at several different sites.)

But when Colby Loucks took over the project that year, he wasn’t convinced it had reached its full stride. “I tried to think about what was needed to make our use of tech bigger and better, and I decided to take a different tack,” Loucks said. “Adding Eric Becker to the team reflects that.”

Becker has heavy-lidded eyes and close-cropped brown hair, and speaks at a pace so relaxed it borders on languid. Ask him what’s in the lab set up in the spare room of his apartment, and within a few minutes you’ll understand, more or less, what makes him tick. Power tools. A boxy black 3-D printer that lets him churn out prototypes of whatever gadget he’s refining. A milling machine for trimming metal pieces. And box after box of circuit boards.

“My dad gave me a circuit board kit when I was five,” Becker says. “I’ve been building them ever since.”

Engineering runs in his family: Becker was born at Edwards Air Force Base, where the Air Force creates everything from spy jets to NASA space shuttles, and where his father served as an engineer. His grandfather worked for the Skunk Works, the Lockheed Martin division famous for developing some of the world’s fastest stealth aircrafts. “Growing up around all of that, I was really inspired to pursue a career in developing technology,” Becker says.

After studying electrical and computer engineering in college, he snagged a job with a military contractor specializing in micro air vehicles—“drones that are under a foot, under a pound,” Becker explains. “So they can fit in backpacks.”

In the years that followed, he worked for a variety of firms and government agencies, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Special Forces. The gadgets he helped build ranged from standard UAVs to self-driving cars—and even, at one point, equipment for transporting robotically controlled moths being tested as living drones.

But Becker wasn’t as keen on ritzy military projects as that track record suggests. “It’s probably not good for my financial future,” he says with a laugh, “but I’ve always been interested in big problems, things that have an impact or that matter, and less interested in making a bunch of money.” His big steppingstone in that direction was George Powell.

Tall, gray-haired, and wiry as a cell tower, Powell is just as much a tech enthusiast as Becker—but for very different reasons. He holds a PhD in animal behavior, and while his general passion is conservation science, he gets the most animated when he’s talking about wildlife migrations.

“There are lots of reasons why parks get established, but very few are created with knowledge of the wildlife,” Powell says emphatically. “You have to use the animals’ needs to determine a park’s boundaries, as opposed to just seeing a pretty forest and saying you want to protect it.”

It’s an argument he’s honed over more than 40 years of living and working in tropical climates, where he’s tracked everything from resplendent quetzals to jaguars to whitelipped peccaries (hog-like creatures that roam parts of the Amazon). The devices he’s used in that research—GPS collars, quarter-sized radio ear tags, DNA extraction equipment—are, to Powell, simply a means to understanding where animals go, and why.

When Loucks invited him to join the WCTP in April 2014, Powell had already been trying to find engineers who could help WWF update its wildlife monitoring equipment. “You shouldn’t have to put a 40-pound satellite collar on an elephant anymore,” Powell says. “We’re pretty behind the curve with technology.” He decided to leave the forest mapping work he was doing for WWF in Thailand and Nepal to get on board.

Becker met Powell later that year, when he was working for a small engineering firm called Falcon UAV. It was the company whose drone the WCTP had settled on for their park surveillance tests in Namibia. When Becker’s boss invited him to a meeting at WWF, he met Loucks, Powell, and the rest of the WCTP team—and came away inspired.

“I really wanted to help their mission, so I started volunteering for George, just trying to make whatever he needed,” Becker says. His volunteer work quickly morphed into a parttime consulting gig for the infrared camera project. And in April 2016, not long after those cameras were up and running, the WCTP hired Becker full-time. His job title? “Conservation Engineer.”

If you’ve never heard of such a position before, that’s because it’s rare among conservation NGOs. Loucks says having an in-house engineer makes sense for a number of reasons. To begin with, it frees his team from having to shop for ready-made equipment. “A lot of the equipment we need to design just doesn’t exist yet. Or it’s extremely expensive,” Loucks says. “Eric can be like, ‘OK, we can buy this camera for $20,000, or I can build us one for $8,000.’”

Becker’s skill set also pairs well with Powell’s. The latter—who lives and breathes fieldwork—acts as a networker on the parks side of the equation, scouting out potential sites, meeting extensively with rangers and directors, and getting to know the challenges they’re up against. Once Powell zeroes in on a potential project, he sits down with Becker, and the tech ideas start flowing. Becker then launches into R&D mode, researching equipment, connecting with companies whose products he’s interested in, and spinning out prototypes in his home lab.

The result, Becker says, is a tech development process that’s nimbler than what you’d expect from an NGO—but more customized and collaborative than what you’d get from a private company. “Now our team gets to design things with the rangers, with the end users. Which makes a huge difference, because nobody understands these problems better than the people on the ground,” he says. “We can basically act like a technology company, but one that’s on the rangers’ and parks’ side.”

When I contacted Becker and Powell in June of this year, they were scrambling to finish another new device in time for an opportunity that Powell had found out about just weeks earlier. Becker couldn’t share much about the event itself—only that it was a “crazy testing opportunity”—but described the equipment with the relish of a bona fide tech nerd.

“It’s an open-source circuit board—basically a little computer designed to last for years on one battery,” he said. “If we can get that one board working, then we can plug in all these different sensors to it for monitoring things like noise, video footage, seismic activity, whatever.” Becker also said he hopes the new device can support WWF’s work on a variety of issues—not just antipoaching, but human-wildlife conflict and maybe even climate change.

That’s only one of an impressive number of tools Becker and Powell are currently creating with various partners.

Others range from a gunshot detector to an audio sensor that could use the vocalizations of elephants—who are highly communicative animals—to alert rangers when an elephant is in distress. They’re also thinking through how to distribute a large donation of equipment that FLIR has given to the WCTP.

Powell doesn’t expect each idea to succeed equally. “With this whole project, we’re trying not to be afraid of failing,” he says. “We’re trying to find things that might be a bit risky but could have a huge impact if they’re successful.”

Becker, for his part, couldn’t be happier with that mission. “I just love the opportunity to think about these seemingly impossible problems and try and use tech to solve them,” he says. “Getting to design tech tools for people working in the field is one of the coolest parts of my job. Every day is basically playtime for me.”

Learn more about the Wildlife Crime Technology Project.

The Wildlife Crime Technology Project

Open-source circuit board

This circuit board functions as a digital base for a variety of tracking applications that can be plugged into it—everything from audio devices to video cameras. And since it’s open source, conservationists can easily customize it to monitor just about anything. A built-in clock lets it sleep for long periods of time and wake up right when it’s needed, allowing its battery to last for years.

Low-cost sensors in South Africa

It’s now pretty easy to find an affordable UAV. But most of the monitoring equipment that attaches to it is either too rudimentary or too expensive to be practical for conservation. The WCTP is funding the development of onboard technology that can be trained to process and filter raw information as it flies, which would cut out a lot of manual editing work for rangers.

Elephant vocalization device

In 2014, the WCTP began working with Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program to develop a new recorder for African elephants. Using a low-cost, high-performance computer with a single circuit board, the device could potentially monitor the highly complex sounds elephants use to communicate—and send an alarm to rangers when an elephant signals that it’s been wounded or attacked.

FLIR infared camera

This simple but powerful thermal video camera can detect movement as far as 6,600 feet away— and through machine learning software, it’s been trained to focus on humans and filter out wildlife. When someone crosses the park boundary, the system immediately sends an alarm and video clip of the suspicious activity to rangers.

Gunshot detector

Developed in partnership with Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program, this sensor is trained to listen for the sound of gunshots. When it detects that noise, the sensor transmits an audio clip of the data to the internet via satellite. An operator can then listen to the clip to verify the sound before dispatching rangers—or a UAV—to the site in question.

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