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New wine in new bottle: A new surveillance technology for wildlife monitoring

Imagine a surveillance technology, like a CCTV, that can tell you the shape, height, distance and speed of an object, in an instant. Scientists at Department of Instrumentation and Applied Physics at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc)have realized this goal at a staggeringly economical price. The study was recently published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Sensors Journal.

The team, comprising Ms. Essa Mahapatra, Mr. P. Sathishkumar and Dr. G R Jayanth, have constructed a compact, rugged and simple device, which consists of two sensors and a retroreflector screen. Any object moving between the two adjacent sensors and the screen triggers the setup; the distance, height, speed and 'profile' (or shape) of the object is measured by the sensor. The accuracy of this detection is pretty impressive – height is recorded accurately 98.5% of the time and distance 94% of the time.

“The cost of the lab prototype is about Rs. 5000”, said Dr. Jayanth, the project lead and one of the authors on the paper. “The maximum distance permissible depends on the sensitivity and resolution of the detector and the divergence of the source. Our target is to achieve a range of about ½ km-1km.” He also added that “for monitoring of small perimeters, such as that of private properties, the current system may be adequate.”

One important application of this technology, Dr. Jayanth explained, is that multiple such devices can be mounted along roads, railways and farmland edges to record data on wildlife crossing these boundaries. “The system would provide data on the types of animals crossing the boundaries, their frequency and the specific locations where they cross”, he said. “Such data can be used to trigger early warning systems. They can also be used by policy makers and conservationists to implement suitable remedial measures to minimize road kills, collision of wildlife with trains, crop damage and to assess the effect of vehicular traffic on wildlife.”

Dr. Jayanth also mentioned another application -- in the measurement of vehicular traffic. “The technology can be used by mounting the source and retroreflector on opposite sides of a road, [and] it is possible to obtain profiles of vehicles, their speed, and their lane of motion. We have initiated making measurements with the system here on IISc’s roads.”

The utility of this device is clearly not in replacing the far superior CCTV and camera techonology, which is being used for detailed surveillance. It is in providing previously unexplored features in the surveillance toolkit. “The advantage of CCTV and camera is that they record the actual image of an individual and not just their profile. Thus, their data is far 'richer' in detail than ours”, said Dr Jayanth. “However, to recognize objects automatically, it is necessary to perform image processing on a computer, which is an impractical proposition in a remote area and over extended distances.”

“Further, while [wildlife] camera traps can be deployed near watering holes, trails etc. their range is limited. The same is true for a CCTV. In contrast, the proposed system can be fabricated and maintained at low cost, and employs simple low-power electronics. It is therefore especially suited for long range perimeter monitoring”, he added.

The motivation for creating this product was to help wildlife conservation, said Dr. Jayanth. “We are collaborating with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) on this and other related projects. Many of the problems facing Indian wildlife are pressing and hard to resolve. Some, however, can benefit from the use of technology. Therefore,in this and other related projects, we are interested in addressing the pressing need by developing simple technologies, rather than make the technology 'cutting edge', which, almost by definition, may take a significantly longer time to mature.”

At an ideation stage, cost-cutting can be difficult, for new approaches and technology is being tried and tested - “We too emphasize functionality at the ideation stage, but in addition, also look for simplicity and potential for deployment in the field. Low cost is simply the result of an attempt to develop a simple system.”

Overall, this yet-to-be-christened product holds enormous potential in a variety of surveillance applications, and more specifically with wildlife. It will be interesting to see if like CCTVs, this technology too will be available for purchase commerically in the years to come.

About the authors:

Essa Mahapatra is with Analog Devices (India) Pvt. Ltd., Bangalore, India. (e-mail:

P. Sathishkumar is with Department of Instrumentation and Applied Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India (e-mail:

Dr. G. R. Jayanth is with Department of Instrumentation and Applied Physics and Applied Photonics Initiative, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. (e-mail: Ph. No: 080 - 22933197