From the Field: Eric Becker and designing sensors for wildlife

In this From the Field interview, we speak to Eric Becker, a conservation technology engineer at the World Wildlife Fund US. He talks about his work in technology design and the key challenges he's experienced implementing new technology in the field. 

Date published: 2017/05/22

Eric Becker is a conservation engineer at WWF where his focus is on developing sensor based systems to detect poachers in protected areas in Africa and Asia. Eric also leverages advancements in the Internet of Things to find energy-efficient, low-cost methods and systems to scale up technologies to solve the planet’s most urgent issues.

Prior to joining WWF, Becker worked as an engineering contractor for a variety of organizations, including The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Air Force Research lab, and the Special Forces. He developed many gadgets, including micro air vehicles (devices under one foot and one pound) and regular sized small unmanned aircrafts. While at the University of West Florida, Becker competed in the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s student unmanned aerial vehicle competition, where his group flew the first-ever recorded fully-autonomous flight.

Through his work, Eric is literally building new technologies for conservation piece by piece. He's part of a new generation of conservationist: conservation engineers. These engineers are bringing the conservation field into the 21st century, developing the new technological tools to combat some of the more pressing problems facing the environment. 

Interview Transcript

What is your background?

My background is electrical and computer engineering, mostly in drones and unmanned systems. I'm also a hardware guy, so I design circuit boards and I program them, and then write whatever apps they use. I'd say I'm a hardware guy. 

How are you using technology?

I'm using technology in conservation at WWF to try to catch people who are coming into parks, also with the hope of using the same technology to track wildlife without putting tags on them. We really focus on any type of modality of sensors or any kind of sensors, acoustic, seismic, chemical, radar, whatever they might be and leverage machine learning to have sensors tell what is in front of them.

 

Installing solar panels for FLIR camera system in a National Park in central Kenya.

(Image credit: James Morgan / WWF-US)

What emerging technologies do you see benefitting conservation?

The emerging technologies I see benefiting our work are these long range, low power communications and wireless technologies coming out with the Internet of Things and narrowband stuff where we can have these battery powered sensors communicate for long distances. Mobile computing, the more power efficient mobile computing where we can have the same kinds of cellphone processors consume much lower power and go into lower power states so that we can process images, process sensor data wherever it might be, down at the edge or at the sensor before we can turn on and transmit that information back to the rangers.

What are the challenges in using tech for conservation?

I’d say the biggest challenge is developing these high tech solutions in the States before we go in the field is difficult and they have their own issues. Getting things to work in the African environment or in the field for long durations tends to be the biggest issue.

Getting wireless communications in these heavily wooded areas or areas through dense vegetation. And then just power. So power and connectivity are probably the biggest technical challenges working in the field.

 

A screen inside the ranger vehicle shows movement of both animals and poachers up to a mile away. Now, the cameras can help locate every poacher in a group, arrest rates have gone from roughly 10-20% to 80-90%. It's also having a deterrent effect. 

(Image credit: James Morgan / WWF-US)

Where do you see technology going in the next five years?

As far as where I see technology going in the next five years, I'd say it’s the Internet of Things, mobile computing, machine learning. It will really benefit us to have these intelligent sensors, to start correlating things with GPS data (or whatever data that might be) using machine learning or AI, this is really going to start showing researchers things that we could never see or imagine before. So I’d say IoT or machine learning

Are you interested in building sensors? Join Eric in our sensors group to learn more about different systems being developed by WILDLABS community members.  

All images appearing in this article are copyrighted to James Morgan / WWF-US.