Albert McKeon

Jul 13th 2020

From Bears to Birds: Animal Extinction Prevention Supported by Technology


Whether it’s to curb poaching, lessen the harm of climate change or prevent extinction itself, modern technology has shown it can offer new ways to approach the often delicate and precise work of saving animals.

Separate initiatives by Northrop Grumman employees to protect Hawaiian crows, sea turtles, polar bears and oysters are incorporating technological know-how into animal extinction prevention programs, efforts that illustrate how ingenuity from unexpected places can help solve seemingly intractable problems.

Even though animals are involved, these are more than pet projects.

Building a Smarter Bird Feeder

Meena Janekrabuanhad is an environmental engineer for Northrop Grumman and a member of the company’s environmental remediation group.

Outside of her regular work duties, she and five colleagues last year won a hackathon that Northrop Grumman sponsored with San Diego Zoo Global, a non-profit that operates the famed zoo. The challenge was to devise a way to track the Hawaiian Crow, also known as the Ala’la.

Endangered and the only surviving crow species that’s native to Hawaii, the Ala’la regenerates the forests of the Big Island by dispersing seeds. San Diego Zoo and wildlife experts lacked the technology to track the bird and have a consistent way to monitor its health and feeding patterns.

Working in one of Northrop Grumman’s experimental maker spaces known as a FabLab, where employees can use all sorts of technologies for causes such as the hackathon, Janekrabuanhad and her team created a smart monitoring bird feeder that can identify the dining bird, monitor its eating habits, assess its health and provide GPS and weather conditions. Currently in a second prototype model, the food hopper will unlock only for Hawaiian crows fitted with radio frequency identification tags. The feeder will be equipped with cameras and sensors, with the data to be transferred to a website that will serve as a research database for scientists to monitor the birds’ activity in the wild.

Janekrabuanhad doesn’t consider herself a techie, so the feeder, called “Ala’la Carte Diner,” is “something very real and attainable to create. You don’t need an engineering background.” She added: “What really drove me to this is the environmental aspect. What I’m saying is, ‘Let’s go save the birds.'”

Engaging Students to Help Sea Turtles

Did you know that from May to October each year, over 30,000 green sea, loggerhead sea and leatherback sea turtles nest their eggs along the 72-mile-long shoreline of Brevard County, Florida? What wildlife researchers don’t know is where these turtles come from, where they feed and where they ultimately go.

Roddey Smith, a Northrop Grumman fellow of modeling and simulation, and Richard Beers, a support equipment manager at the company, want to help find the answers. They and dozens of colleagues are working with Brevard Zoo on a multi-pronged program that takes the best of affordable technology to track sea turtles during their five-month visit to the Florida shore.

Appropriately enough, the project also aims to teach the students of participating colleges and high schools to fish “for a lifetime,” rather than giving them the catch of one day, Beers said, citing the old proverb. “Our goal is to take what we know and teach them to fish, and eventually they can hand off the tech to outside organizations to sustain themselves,” he said of students from the University of Florida, Florida Atlantic University, University of Central Florida and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The hurdle they’re all trying to overcome is that tracking sea turtles is expensive and difficult. Current tracking relies mostly on satellite transmitters that show a view from high above but fails to observe the turtles near or below the surface of the ocean.

The project, called “Turtle Tech,” aims to build an automated data analysis system that would use image recognition technology to identify sea turtles onshore and offshore. The data — which will include RF trackers and high-resolution images taken from above by drones, as well as temperature readings and other environmental actions recorded by sensors along the beach — will be sent to researchers via a new data network and analyzed with machine learning so the researchers won’t have to spend hours manually combing through thousands of photos.

“If you better understand how sea turtles are gathering and how their life cycle changes,” Smith said, “you can improve conservation.”

A Team That Went Beyond Its Mission

Sea ice melting linked to climate change has polar bears scrambling to find food after drastic changes to the landscape of their longstanding Arctic habitats. Researchers need to know more about the new routes that bears take to find seals and whether they can survive such changes.

Operation #PolarEye, a joint venture with Northrop Grumman and the San Diego Zoo, successfully mapped Arctic Sea ice with the aim of saving the bears in 2017. Working in Churchill, Manitoba — known in many circles as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” — the team used a commercial off-the-shelf hexacopter fitted with a custom sensor pod to capture a fine-scale view that included 3-D maps of sea ice habitat. Customized technology also detected tracks and signs left behind by polar bears as they migrate from land to ice.

It’s a big world, so even though the team didn’t return to the land of polar bears, its members have found other conservation initiatives to assist.

In 2018, Cristian Paunescu and other members of the #PolarEye team ventured to Panama. Relying on the same hexacopter used in Manitoba, they helped San Diego Zoo Global and Duke University map rain forest habitat along the Panama Canal. And in 2019, Paunescu and his colleagues went to Hawaii to assist San Diego Zoo Global in tracking the breeding of the Ala’la, the endangered crow that Janekrabuanhad’s team is helping preserve with the bird feeder.

“We did a lot of work,” Paunescu said of how his team’s creation made a difference beyond its original purpose. “I’m proud of how far it got. We have smart groups of people who nonetheless can’t go into much depth in the researchers’ fields. We were interested in how they did things so we could figure out how to create technology that could enhance their work.”

He added: “I feel that we have scratched the surface of what’s available and what we can do together. I definitely want to follow this path and hope that technology companies like ours also help. Conservation organizations have a tough path. It’s going to take more than just a couple of passionate engineers to make a difference. There is a lot more conservation work to be done.”

Scanning the Bay to Save Oysters

In a plight similar to Florida’s sea turtles, the oyster population of Chesapeake Bay can’t easily be studied at a time when pollution, overfishing and climate have threatened their existence. In just the Maryland side of the bay, the market-size oyster population declined from 600 million in 1999 to fewer than 300 million in early 2018, according to an assessment by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Martin Kepinski-Kozaczek, a program manager and challenge lead at Northrop Grumman, is leading a project in coordination with Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) to improve how oysters are monitored. Right now, CBF is limited in studying oysters in the 50 sanctuary reefs along Maryland and Virginia. Researchers can dig up a piece of the reef, but it provides only one small sample, Kepinski-Kozaczek said. CBF also occasionally pays a diver to take pictures, but that’s costly and doesn’t always guarantee quality images, and thus a true sense of the oyster population, because of changing water conditions.

Five Northrop Grumman teams are helping to enhance that methodology, with as many as 40 employees involved at various times. They are creating off-the-shelf, modern technology solutions to better monitor the reefs so that CBF can someday replicate them at low cost and so that the Northrop Grumman employees constructing the systems can “try different things, fail and try other approaches,” Kepinski-Kozaczek said. “Hopefully it’s a learning experience they can take back to their programs.”

For example, an inexpensive camera package that is wrapped in a tight air container can be connected to a remote control of a rover that works like an aerial drone but is underwater. The team is also looking at placing a microphone or hydrophone on a commercial buoy that costs only a few hundred dollars to record water conditions and passing traffic.

Ultimately, the evidence gathered from these solutions will give CBF a clearer and comprehensive picture of reef conditions and a stronger understanding of the efforts needed to preserve oysters. CBF intends to plant 10 billion oysters in the bay by 2025. Kepinski-Kozaczek hopes to deliver the solutions to CBF by year’s end and then spend 2021 helping the organization collect data.

Echoing the thoughts of Janekrabuanhad, Smith, Beers and Paunescu, Kepinski-Kozaczek appreciates how Northrop Grumman gives him the latitude to pursue animal extinction prevention efforts outside of normal work duties.

“This shows how companies like Northrop can engage with scientific communities that don’t have the means of looking at a technology space that’s not available to them,” he said. “I hope this is just the start of these kinds of things. Good people have good ideas, and we can help them.”