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Will AI scarecrows warn off elephants?

New Scientist

An African forest elephant in a woodland setting in Loango National Park, Gabon.
He’s on your farm, eating your crops

Michael Nichols/National Geographic/Getty

When you think of agricultural pests, elephants are probably near the bottom of the list. But they do an enormous amount of damage to nut and banana plantations precisely because they are too big, tough and smart to scare off once they start eating. Now, Australian researchers have developed an AI scarecrow that can do the job. It has been so successful that they are looking to adapt it to other smart pests – the long term goal is a scarecrow that understands the type of pest approaching and can tailor its scaring strategy.

Scarecrow technology has a long history of ignominious failure, and not just for elephants –  animals quickly learn to tune out a deterrent if it becomes apparent that there is no threat. Many growers have described birds perching and even roosting on devices that were designed to scare them off. So researchers from CSIRO, Australia’s national research organization, decided the answer was artificial intelligence.

Their AI scarecrow bears little resemblance to what you may be picturing. It has three elements: sensors that detect what kind of pest is approaching, a processing brain to identify them and decide how best to respond, and deterrent devices that can respond intelligently with the right combination of sound or light. These can be scattered widely to encompass any area that needs protection, even if it’s the size of a plantation.

Then it is loaded with a library of predator sounds, animal alarm calls and irritating tones, as well as its own self-generated noises – anything we would consider as “scary or startling,” says senior researcher Ashley Tews. “What constitutes a ‘scary’ sound is an ongoing area of species-dependent research.” However, previous work indicates that leopard and tiger growls can make elephants depart the scene. It’s also well known that elephants are terrified of bees.

“Our goal is to use the system’s adaptive mechanism in a kind of intelligence arms race,” he says.

Make of it what you will, but in tests conducted earlier this year in Gabon, Africa, the strange contraption worked. “Elephants usually turn and escape as quickly as possible back the way they entered,” says Tews.

A close up of one of the VPDaD nodes
One of the Sentinel nodes that comprise the AI scarecrow

CSIRO

Female elephants beat a hastier retreat than males, which greeted the scarecrow with defiance before leaving. “We had one trying to beat up our sensors with a stick,” he says.

This won’t just help people – it could also save elephants. Vivek Thuppil of the University of Nottingham says that 400 people and 100 elephants die each year in India alone in due to human-elephant conflict, often triggered by crop raiding.

The African test was successful enough that the team now plans to extend it to other clever Australian agricultural pests including feral pigs, wallabies, dingoes, cockatoos and ducks. In principle the AI should be able to work out for itself what works best for each particular pest by testing the animal’s reactions.

Thuppil, who has worked in the field of elephant scaring, thinks the approach could work, as long as the scaring devices are placed around the entire perimeter so that “an elephant could never be sure that there is no threat there,” he says. Even big cat growls, he has found previously, don’t work for long. “Within a few encounters, elephants just treated the sound as a stationary threat,” says Thuppil. “They just walked around it.”

In the long term, however, Thuppil predicts the elephants will get wise to this system. Still, he thinks there is plenty of promise for the other pests on CSIRO’s list. And Tews thinks these  sensors could come with added benefits for biodiversity monitoring, as the AI Scarecrow can detect and log all the animals that pass through a given area.

The work was approved by an Animal Ethics Committee.

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