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Conservation Technology at Cal Academy: Drones, OpenROV, and Protecting Forests

Late last month, a number of innovators and field practitioners got together at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences for a series of meetings on conservation technology. The meetings were significant; an indicator of the growing momentum around the use of new innovative technologies for environmental protection, conservation science, and natural resource management. The field...

Late last month, a number of innovators and field practitioners got together at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences for a series of meetings on conservation technology. The meetings were significant; an indicator of the growing momentum around the use of new innovative technologies for environmental protection, conservation science, and natural resource management. The field of conservation technology has undergone a massive surge in capability and opportunity as a result of smartphones, open hardware, and the internet. Conservation no longer needs to rely on the military or limited technology vendors to create expensive solutions to our biggest problems. We can now harness open innovation to change the face of conservation. I covered this movement during my 2013 Explorers Symposium presentation and in posts about our Into The Okavango project (seen on Medium and the Okavango blog). Meetings such as this one in San Francisco allow us to share successes, discuss failures, and form collaborations that will only lead to conservation being more successful overall. Fortunately there seems to be a growing effort to do this more often, with successful events like the US State Department’s Fishackathon and the Conservation 3.0 discussions at Society of Conservation Biology’s 2015 conference. There is a greater movement happening here, and a number of upcoming initiatives are looking to harness these efforts so that we can be more effective at conservation. I will be sharing them here over the coming months. It is an exciting time to be a technology geek in conservation.

Many of the attendees remained at Cal Academy for both of the events, which was a great opportunity for extended dialogue between those involved in the technology development and those involved in the work out in the field. There aren’t many better places to hold an event like this than the California Academy of the Sciences. It is a beautiful facility, full of scientific exhibits and immersive environments. If you ever find yourself in Northern California, you should certainly make an effort to visit. One of my favorite parts is the Academy’s famous 20 year old, 9.5-foot albino alligator named Claude.

Photo: Albino Alligator at Cal Academy
Claude in his beautiful tank at the entrance of Cal Academy (Photo: Shah Selbe)

On September 16th, the World Resources Institute and the Forest Legality Alliance held a meeting on innovative technologies that can be used for detecting and preventing illegal logging. One focus was the current and future of “perimeter defense” technologies, traditionally a military term that focuses on protection of the perimeter of the forest as a means to stop illegal deforestation. Illegal logging efforts often branch out from the edges of forests or along roads so protection can be more effective by monitoring those areas. This event was a great mix of technology developers, end users, and field practitioners. We discussed some of the challenges that regional projects face as a means to scope the problem and help the solution providers understand the issue more deeply. There were also a number of interesting technologies that were presented. Topher White discussed his innovative Rainforest Connection platform and their work in Indonesia, Central Africa, and the Amazon. Urthecast was there to demonstrate their current and upcoming satellite imagery capabilities, which would make real time space-based monitoring effective provided that the resolution and refresh frequency keep growing the way they are. Even technology-enabled storytelling app startup TIMBY was there to talk about their successes in Africa and how citizen monitoring and journalism could help.

The following day, September 17th, was the Drones for Conservation Summit #SciDrone15. I was invited as a result of my National Geographic Society- and Lindblad Expedition-supported SoarOcean project, which explores the use of low cost consumer drones to better protect our coastal marine reserves and catch illegal fishing.

SoarOcean Expedition #1: San Simeon from Shah Selbe on Vimeo.

The day was full of speakers from both sides of the conservation drones effort. Innovative technology providers were there like 3D Robotics’ Chris Anderson, OpenROV’s David Lang, and DJI’s Eric Cheng. There were also a number of experts from the field like Conservation Drones’ Lian Pin Koh, Digital Democracy’s Gregor MacLennan and Wildeas’ Nir Tenenbaum. It was a great cross section of drone practitioners in the conservation world, which led into fascinating discussions into the evening. One of those discussions was a continuation of talks for SoarOcean and OpenROV to support the use of drones to help plan the approach and minimize stress during whale disentanglement efforts off the coast of Northern California. There was also a fascinating presentation on the use of quadcopters to herd elephants away from farms, in order to help reduce negative human-wildlife interactions. The day was an exciting look at how different researchers, conservationists, and indigenous communities are using this technology to monitor, study and protect wildlife, wild places, and territories. As technological capabilities increase, we will only see these use cases expand.

David Lang, cofounder of OpenROV, announces the OpenROV Trident (Photo: Shah Selbe)

One of the highlights of #SciDrone15 was the unveiling of OpenROV’s new Trident underwater drone. OpenROV cofounder David Lang presented the new underwater drone during an impassioned presentation on the power of citizen exploration and the maker-based tools, allowing anyone out there to be an active participant in scientific exploration and conservation. The Trident completely reimagines what we previously considered remotely-operated vehicles (ROV). I use the word “drone” intentionally because, if you see the way this thing flies underwater, there is no better word to describe it. The folks at OpenROV have been making open source underwater robots for a few years now, but the Trident has the fit and finish that more open source hardware projects need to aspire to. They recently launched a massively-successful Kickstarter campaign, with just under 20 days still remaining. If underwater exploration and conservation are of interest to you, head over to take a look. The Trident has a beautiful hydrodynamic design, 1080p HD camera (for pictures and video straight to your smartphone or tablet), 3-hour battery life, and it is small enough to fit inside of a backpack. This is really open innovation at it’s best.

During #SciDrone15, I had the opportunity to play with the Trident when it was connected to the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. One of the really exciting things the OpenROV developers are working on us the use of the Leap Motion controller in conjunction with the VR headset.

Photo: The Leap Motion controller for virtual reality environments can change the ways in which we explore. (Photo: Leap Motion)
The Leap Motion controller for virtual reality environments can change the ways in which we explore. (Photo: Leap Motion)

This allows you to actually see your hands in a virtual reality cockpit and control switches and levers inside of the VR environment. When used with the Trident, this could give anyone the fully immersive experience of their own personal submarine. After just a few minutes of testing this out, I was hooked. If we could give students worldwide the opportunity to experience their own personal Trident submarine with real-time underwater HD video, I am convinced we will have a a generation of ocean advocates and explorers overnight.

The rise of affordable and capable open source hardware and software are fundamentally changing the way we look at conservation and exploration. These tools allow can us to become better protectors of Earth’s pristine environments and critical wildlife, at a cost and level of complexity that is far lower than ever before. Conservation technology is becoming an increasingly important resource as we move into a more sustainable future. There are a number of exciting efforts underway, so be sure to keep posted here to find out more. If you would like to get involved, feel free to reach out and join the movement towards open conservation technology. This planet needs all the help it can get.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Shah Selbe
National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Spacecraft Propulsion Engineer. Ocean Conservation Technologist. Leader at Engineers Without Borders. My primary activity is focused on the use of engineering in it's ability to harness design and science to improve humanity and solve our greatest problems. These efforts are specifically within the areas of ocean conservation, unmanned spacecraft, and access to clean water, sanitation, and renewable energy in the developing world. I am a conservation technologist and technology expert working to identify and implement innovative approaches to ocean conservation. This work began at Stanford University and I have worked with a number of influential nonprofits and government organizations worldwide. The work, often called “FishNET”, was honored as 2011 Buckminster Fuller Challenge Semi-Finalist, 2011 Savannah Ocean Exchange Gulfstream Navigator Finalist, and 2011 Katerva Award Nominee. Most recently, this work resulted in National Geographic naming me as one of their 2013 Emerging Explorers. This includes the identification of innovative approaches and technologies that work within the constraints of a certain community, including the development of hardware (low cost conservation drones, acoustic sensors, etc) and data management solutions (smartphone apps, online databases, etc.). I also created MPA Guardian, a website and smartphone app to allow crowdsourced protection of CA’s marine protected area network. I also work as a spacecraft propulsion systems engineer, focused on both liquid and ion propulsion systems for satellites. In this work, I have supported propulsion systems engineering, R&D efforts, and worked numerous launches and mission controls. Finally, I serve as the Southern California Regional Representative for Engineers Without Borders (EWB), watching over all the university and professional chapters in the region (consisting of thousands of professional engineers and engineering students). I have held multiple leadership roles within EWB, including many years as President of the Los Angeles Professional chapter and project leads for many projects throughout the world. Some examples of the projects I have built are homes in Mexico, solar energy projects in Mali, water distribution systems in Malawi, and rainwater catchment systems in Tanzania (so students spend time in school instead of fetching water).