The Albanu Foundation: When Technology Helps Protect Wildlife
MICROSOFT – Article MSEO
What if we told you that new technologies can protect thousands of elephants? This is the ambition of The Albanu Foundation, which innovatively improves the conservation of endangered species in Africa.
For several years, Margaux Claret and Jean-Philippe Claret have had one goal: to protect the elephants of Africa, essential emblems of the animal kingdom but also privileged targets of poachers. How? By putting new technologies at the service of the field work carried out by associations, foundations and local populations, in order to prevent poaching while creating the necessary conditions for a human-to-human relationshipharmonious animal around the reserves. An ambitious project, carried out for two years by The Albanu Foundation, which brings together many experts all convinced that new technologies can make a real difference in how to address the major environmental and societal challenges of today and tomorrow.
Respectively president and founding member of the foundation, Margaux and Jean-Philippe Claret return for us on this human, environmental and technological adventure, and tell us how their partnership with Microsoft gives them the means to go further.
Taking part in the conservation of southern African elephants
Poaching, Overpopulation and Human Security: The Many Challenges Ahead
The Albanu Foundation is based in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, countries where dense elephant populations lack space – Botswana alone accounts for 50% of Africa’s elephant population – and the fight against poaching is a real concern. “For these countries, the best way to protect elephants is by tracking, analyzing and predicting their movements, rather than directly tracing poachers,” says Claret, adding that “this approach also helps to better delineate the habitat of these animals and thus avoid overflows within the surrounding cultures and villages.”
It is therefore a question of controlling the movement of animals by providing an additional level of technology to the tracking devices already used in the field, while offering a more advanced level of safety in animal monitoring, the previously used radio system may be the target of malicious cyber attacks to identify their location, but also to anti-poaching brigades on the ground. “Our mission is to secure all the work done by the brigades and provide them with effective tools to understand the movements of elephants and be able to redirect them to their natural habitat,” explains Margaux Claret. This notion of security is essential to the approach since the poachers who operate in these regions represent a very real danger, both for animals and for humans.
New technologies, the right answer
To meet these many challenges, the teams gathered around the Albanu Foundation project are putting themselves in order to develop devices capable of collecting as much data as possible from elephant movements and terrain: latitudes, longitudes, abnormal sounds and noises… Everything is screened using drones, IoT sensors, Edge infrastructure and cloud technologies. The IoT-drone coupling makes it possible to partially replace the use of helicopters. The movements, sounds and GPS data of animals that are recorded through sensors positioned on some of the animals and sent to the Azure Cloud for analysis and classification. A complex mechanism that must also take into account certain difficulties such as latency times, unstable networks, or the complexity of updating the platform… But this does not in any way undermine the ambitions of The Albanu Foundation, on the contrary: Margaux, Jean-Philippe Claret and their partners want more than ever to give a technological boost to their project...
Make a bigger impact (even) with Microsoft technologies
Reliability, modularity, security, performance… All the power of Azure
To do this, The Albanu Foundation teams are turning to Azure technologies: «We wanted to combine our own developed technologies with the capabilities and power of the Azure Cloud» says Jean-Philippe Claret. The objective? Take advantage of the reliability, modularity and security of Azure services to build a robust and efficient value chain that combines operational work and technologies, addressing multiple use cases:
• Microsoft Azure’s Artificial Intelligence enables The Albanu Foundation to build elephant motion prediction capabilities;
• Field teams now have monitoring and surveillance tables where all animal location information is aggregated;
• Each elephant is associated with a Machine Learning model, through Digital Twins – also known as digital twins – to better understand and anticipate flock movements;
• Azure IoT Edge allows to visualize the differences of elephants in relation to their natural habitat, to understand and predict the population movements due to the presence of poachers. The objective? Strengthen animal protection, village and crop safety;
• The protocols used by Azure add a layer of security to the LoRa network, for doubly secure infrastructures.
In addition, the maintainability and updating of elephant collars – which contain firmware capable of collecting the data needed for tracking – are clearly optimized. Rather than putting the animals to sleep to manually update the components of the different collars, Microsoft technologies allow these updates to be made remotely through a «elephant master» which centralizes all information about a herd. Azure technologies allow us to equip elephants with firmware that is operational and updated from the cloud, without the brigades being forced to carry out this operation on the ground, a fortiori from potentially dangerous areas» describes Jean-Philippe Claret.
At the same time, The Albanu Foundation teams use Surface tablets with brigades. Indeed, the ergonomics of these tactile equipment is particularly adapted to the «off-road» working conditions of the patrols and also allows to gather in one and the same place all the Azure functionalities necessary for their mission. «Surface tablets allow you to load all the tracker data, intelligence data and also give access to the information of other species located near elephants» explains Margaux Claret. For example, if an elephant does not go to the right place, the brigades will be notified directly from the Surface shelves and can act accordingly. “This equipment will ensure that brigades no longer have to rely on a control centre. They will be able to intervene more quickly,” says the Foundation’s president, a boon when we know that on the ground, “every minute counts.”
FastTrack, an essential ingredient for the success of the project
The technological rise of The Albanu Foundation and NGS-Drone was supported by FastTrack, a support program developed by Microsoft. “Without FastTrack, we wouldn’t be where we are today, we probably would have made mistakes in the way we design our architecture,” says Claret. “some topics like the Edge are complex, and we needed to be accompanied to understand the specifics, the limitations…”.
FastTrack has thus proved to be fundamental in many respects and has enabled The Albanu Foundation to transform its technological concept into a real product. Microsoft experts were able to answer all the technological questions and facilitate the migration to the Azure Cloud. In addition, Margaux, Jean-Philippe Claret and their partners have gained in agility, autonomy and are now able to build their own infrastructure while being backed by the power of Microsoft technologies.
This virtuous dynamic gives The Albanu Foundation the means to carry its ambitions ever further. And tomorrow, the teams intend to share their know-how with as many actors as possible and to replicate their approach to other threatened species such as bees, rhinoceros or species of rare and threatened trees. Another (technological) step towards a better preservation of wildlife.