Technology in the Wild: An Interdisciplinary Discussion on the Intersection of Autonomous Systems and Wildlife Conservation

Kingsley, C.

Moderated panel session at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) 2020 XPONENTIAL Conference, Virtual (October 2020).

Autonomous technologies are becoming more scalable, reliable, and ruggedized, fortunately at a critical time in which wildlife and environmental conservation is growing in need, scale, and emphasis. As such, autonomous technologies, including unmanned air and ground vehicles, telerobotics, sensor payloads and data fusion, computer vision and image processing, and other advanced machine learning techniques, present the ability to greatly advance conservation efforts beyond existing bounds, and in several cases, already are. In the context of conservation, these technologies can increase access and reach into otherwise inaccessible or unsafe environments, increase efficiency, coverage, and consistency of surveying activities, improve and automate species detection and classification from audio and imagery, track population-level movement and activities, monitor and assess habitat changes and perimeters, increase data collection quality, duration, and resolution through small, durable, integrated sensors, and especially, automate manual and mundane conservation tasks to free biologists and ecologists to do the more critical and interesting conservation work they set out to do.

At this session, a multidisciplinary panel of experts discussed the landscape of conservation issues that can be assisted, enhanced, or mitigated through the development and application of relevant autonomous technologies. Discussion topics included current research and development efforts applying autonomous technologies to wildlife and environmental conservation, the technological, environmental, and policy-related challenges associated with such efforts, the cost benefit analyses of using technology to fill these roles, the larger-scale ecological implications and/or byproducts of such efforts that must be taken into consideration, other areas of conservation currently ripe for autonomy and vice versa,  as well as thoughts toward the future of autonomous systems and conservation: How might current conservation needs change with the climate and how can we proactively build technology and collaborate across disciplines to prepare for it? How might autonomous technologies go beyond conservation assistance, and address the root causes that currently threaten species, habitats, and resources? Does using technology to protect the wild undermine the concept of wilderness?

This panel session was moderated by Charles River Analytics, a research and development engineering company in Cambridge, MA, with significant expertise in autonomous systems and a growing portfolio of projects applying autonomous technology to wildlife conservation. Panel members included individuals from government, industry, and academia/research to offer their diverse perspectives and paint a holistic view towards the topic at hand. On the government side, individuals from traditionally conservation-focused agencies such as USFW, USGS, USDA, NPS, and NOAA, were included to bring their perspective from the conservation and policy side, as well as individuals from DoD, to discuss the implications of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Sikes Act, and Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans (INRMPs) and how technology can improve adherence to these policies. On the industry side, technology-focused individuals with current efforts applying autonomous technologies to conservation spoke on the goals of those efforts and bring their perspective on the associated technological and business challenges and opportunities. Finally, individuals from research and academia, such as field biologists and ecologists, brought their knowledge on what is currently being done in the field, what jobs and/or objectives can be enhanced with autonomous technology, what the limitations are in practice, and a perspective on overall ecological implications of such efforts.

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