To defend against poaching and protect the lives of wild elephants and rhinos, South African conservationists fly drones over vast land masses in animal reserves and other protected areas to monitor herd movements.
The challenge: drones capture only a fraction of video footage that is usable intelligence on the creatures’ whereabouts. Historically, thousands of hours of footage has to be manually reviewed, cataloged, and made actionable to keep the animals safe.
Evolutio, a group of technology professionals, asked Michigan State University (MSU) seniors to develop a drone elephant recognition and tracking application for the nonprofit organization Elephants, Rhinos & People (ERP) (part of groupelephant.com).
On Friday, December 6th, 2019 the five student “Team Evolutio” delivered and presented a drone elephant recognition application that removes the need to manually analyze video footage, saving ERP hundreds of hours of time.
Team Evolutio won the award for Best Overall Capstone Experience Project for the Computer Science Department at Design Day. Design Day at MSU is the culmination of the semester-long senior Capstone Experience where teams of students collaborate, build, and showcase final software projects for corporate clients.
This state-of-the-art application employs an automated object detection system and has been used to analyze actual drone footage during Fall Semester 2019. The student-built capability is in support of ERP’s Air Force initiative, with elephant recognition and predictive elephant tracking in South Africa.
“ I’ve had the privilege to be involved with the MSU Capstone Experience as both a judge and project mentor for the past 4-years. This year’s project was special: when I was walking around Design Day 2019, it was clear in talking with other student teams that the reputation for our ERP Drone Elephant Recognition project had generated tons of excitement. I heard stories that many of them wanted to be involved. It’s not everyday you get to blend computer science and engineering with helping rhinos, elephants, and the South African people. As the students are able to choose their most desired projects, and with so many projects to choose from, it’s very cool to see that this project was in such high demand. I’m looking forward to helping a new batch of students tackle phase two of the project in Spring 2020.”
Bob Dyksen, Evolutio Senior Consultant and Student Mentor for Team Evolutio at Michigan State University
Predictive tracking allows pilots to create flight paths that maximize the chances of flying over elephants, which then allows rangers to be deployed to the correct location for checkups or, in the case of an active poacher situation, to confront the poacher.
The dashboard is built with VueJS interfacing with a Python Flask RESTful API. Detection of elephants uses a YOLOv3 model. A recurrent neural network uses GPS collars to predict elephant movement.
“The Drone Elephant Recognition Project at Design Day is a strong example of how powerful it is when students get excited by their capstone project. This fall’s Design Day showcased innovative work by 550 students and 350 of them had worked on capstone projects, with this particular team taking the best overall capstone experience for computer science.”
Executive Director of Design Day Wayne Dyksen, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Michigan State University
The five student team that built the application is comprised of Rei Doko, Jeremy Arsenault, Tyler Lawson, Nic Wiggins, and Kunyu Chen. Since it’s their senior year, the students will leverage this capstone award to help them find their first jobs and to solidify their college experience. Team Evolutio also included Jordan Cobe and Scott Munson, Senior Consultants at Evolutio, as well as frequent correspondence with the ERP Air Force team in South Africa.
“Seeing the hard work this semester get the recognition it deserves is rewarding on so many levels. Working with the MSU Engineering students has shown us how bright the future in the technology industry can be. Blending student talent, the excitement of supporting a real world conservation problem, and the platform that groupelephant.com has built, specifically around the ERP initiative, has once again produced extraordinary results. I love watching this technology inspire innovation in the ways we care for and steward our world.”
Adam Ties, Co-Founder and CEO at Evolutio
For Spring Semester 2020, Evolutio is gearing up for a second phase of the ERP Elephant Drone Recognition project with a new batch of students. The second phase will have improved, more targeted flight path data of elephant movements, which will allow even better training of the machine learning models in the application. This next iteration will continue to deeply integrate the students with Francois Maass and Christian Wheeler, who are ERP Air Force Technical Services Architects and serve as the technical points of contact for MSU students. Their embedded, collaborative approach with the students is bringing the best practices of institutionalized enterprise technology integration to this philanthropic conservation effort in Africa.
David Allen, Associate Partner and ERP Air Force Project Director, and his team will continue to be highly engaged with the students into phase two, aligning timelines for the Spring 2020 Design Day at MSU.
Improving the Drone Elephant Recognition and Tracking app’s capabilities will be an ongoing effort with Evolutio, ERP, EPI-USE, and Michigan State University’s Computer Science Department.
The Michigan State University College of Engineering has eight academic departments serving 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students. It offers 10 bachelor’s degrees and 10 graduate degrees in areas of high demand, such as computer science, mechanical engineering, materials science, and environmental engineering, among others. The college’s two newest academic units are the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering.
Evolutio is an early-stage business, founded in May 2018 by Adam Ties and Laura Vetter, and is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Evolutio operationalizes data platforms like AppDynamics and Splunk to monitor, troubleshoot and secure enterprise systems. By integrating application performance and information security monitoring into operations, Evolutio’s clients get a powerful strategic overview of the impact of system performance and incidents on costs and productivity. Evolutio has enjoyed rapid success, having already secured multi-year licensing and services agreements with marquee clients.
Elephants, Rhinos & People (ERP) was founded to preserve and protect Southern Africa’s wild elephants and rhinos through a strategy that is based on rural poverty alleviation. In order to accomplish its mission, ERP carefully selects projects based on their potential to create economic engines for impoverished rural communities in areas adjacent to threatened elephant and rhino populations. Armed with an Ashoka-accredited poverty alleviation model, and by having a multifaceted team positioned to tackle poverty, ERP is able to address the welfare of elephants and rhinos in an unusual but effective manner. ERP brings over 20 years of experience in community relations, poverty alleviation, and impact investment in infrastructure, so as to achieve sustainable, non-lethal wildlife conservation. In addition to the long-term poverty alleviation strategy, ERP also implements a range of tactical interventions, like the ERP Air Force program, designed to combat the poaching problem, and to improve the welfare of elephants and rhinos in the short term.
EPI-USE Labs and Evolutio are members of the groupelephant.com family. groupelephant.com is a largely employee-owned group of boutique services and software companies, employing more than 2,700 people across the world. groupelephant.com also owns and funds a non-profit entity called Elephants, Rhinos & People (ERP) focusing on the preservation of at-risk elephants and rhinos through the economic upliftment of rural people in areas adjacent to these threatened species.