Thursday, December 22, 2016

Listening to the Giants, Once Again!

It's been a long day :)
We have been working on a long term project to minimize human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka by applying various technologies from our expertise in computer science and embedded systems. One such application we are working on is building a smart electric fence which can notify the maintainers and people protected by the fence about breakages of the fence wire at different places. The second application is a system which can locate elephants in the wild based on the infrasonic waves (low frequency sounds) they emit. In order to do that, we have designed and built low-cost infrasonic detectors by ourselves in the lab and have performed various experiments.

Meeting in the village.
In order to perform evaluations of the applications we have built, we have visited different places outside the lab environment and performed experiments with real-world conditions. Once I went with my lab colleagues to visit a domesticated elephant in order to record its sound about which you can read here. As an extension to all these experiments, about a week ago, we visited Udawalawa wildlife park and Hambegamuwa village which is situated in the edge of the wildlife park. There were two important goals of this visit. The first was to meet the villagers of Hambegamuwa and have a meeting to get their help on building our own electric fence in their premises. The second was to visit Udawalawa park and perform elephant infrasonic localization experiments. The journey was planned to be 2 days long since we had a lot of works to do.

Phantom-4 flying over the electric fence.
(video footage from the drone camera is shown
at the end of this article.)

On the journey day early morning, me and Namal came to lab and loaded all the equipment to the van. Then we went to Dr. Deepani's home to pick her. She is an ecologist who has been working on elephant conservation in Udawalawa area for many years. She is the one who mediate our contacts with the villagers and wildlife department officials. After she joined with us to the journey, we directly went to Dr. Kasun's home in Ambalangoda to pick him and Chathura. Dr. Kasun's home offered us our breakfast since we came from Colombo early morning without stopping to have breakfast. Finally, we all got together and set sail to Udawalawa.

Rain and the darkness failed to stop our guys.
When we arrive to Hambegamuwa town, it was evening. We directly went to the small guest house which we had selected to stay. We left our bags there and directly went to the village in Hambegamuwa for the meeting with the villagers which is the first target of our journey. The village is located at the edge of the Udawalwa wildlife park. Therefore, they are continuously getting hit by crop raiding elephants. The people in this small village are growing crops in the surrounding area and they live inside small houses under the threat of roaming elephants. To protect their village, they have an electric fence surrounding an area of approximately 20 acres. Their fence just like all the other electric fences breaks down frequently mostly because of the elephants. When the fence is broken, the villagers have a hard time locating the breakage by walking along the fence wire.

Preparing infrasonic detectors for the experiment.
In this small village, we had a brief meeting with the people and we agreed to donate them an electric fence energizer in order to build a new electric fence for them. They will provide the labor force and other materials such as poles and wires to build the fence while we are providing the most expensive electric fence energizer. We received this energizer as a donation from the students who did Google Summer of Code (GSoC) with our SCoRe lab. As a community service, we are going to donate that energizer to the villagers. In return, we get the chance to use this fence as an experimental testbed to try our electric fence breakage detection system which we developed as a result of a research in the lab.

Deploying a pair of infrasonic detectors.
After the brief meeting, we went to the location of the fence around their village and tried the fence energizer we had bought for them. We noticed that the voltage of the pulses in their existing fence is significantly higher than the voltage of the pulses provided by our energizer. Their energizer is a locally built one while ours is a branded energizer from an international manufacturer according to the standards of electric fencing. Even the villagers accepted that their current energizer is too dangerous to elephants as it can kill an elephant due to the higher voltage instead of driving it away. Therefore, use of an energizer built up to the standards is necessary for them. There was a small rain fall by the time we were inspecting the fence which was a disturbance as we we were dealing with high-voltage. When the darkness came, it was challenging to test our breakage detection system but we kept working under the torch lights. When we return to the guest house in Hambegamuwa town, it was about 9.00pm. The dinner was served to us at the house of the owner of the guest house. His house was located next to the guest house and he lived there with his family. After the dinner, we all went to sleep as we all were tired.

Calibrating the angle of an infrasonic detector.
The next morning, we woke up to start another long day as our plan was to test our elephant infrasonic localization system in the field. We have built low-cost infrasonic microphones and a set of firmware running on an embedded system which can be used to locate elephants from long distances. We have performed experiments on them at different places but our objective of this journey was to use it for real wild elephants. The owner of the guest house offered our breakfast again at his house before we start the journey. Namal was so busy from the morning as he had to prepare the microphones properly for the experiments. He even worked while we were traveling in the van from the guest house to the Udawalawa wildlife park entrance area.

Giants have been here...
After arriving to the Udawalawa wildlife park area, we parked the van near a temple and set up our microphones in the vehicle park as a start. We stayed there recording data for few hours while Dr. Kasun and Dr. Deepani went to have a meeting with the Udawalawa wildlife park warden. After the meeting, he returned with the good news that we can carry our quad-copter to their place and fly it around to take some pictures. Therefore, Chathura went with them in the van since he is our quad-copter specialist and the pilot (read more about our drone adventures here). Meanwhile, we decided that recording infrasonic data from the vehicle park is not a very successful approach as it receives a lot of noise from the vehicles going in the nearby road. Therefore, we decided to carry our two pairs of infrasonic detectors into the jungle.

Our hiding place where we spent the whole evening.
In order to get closer to the Udawalawa reservoir, we hand to crawl under an electric fence which was difficult with the equipment we were carrying. After getting closer to the Udawalawa reservoir, we found a nice hiding place where we can perform the sound recordings. We placed our infrasonic detectors on the ground and calibrated their settings to capture data continuously. Then, we stayed there with a pair of binoculars to note the sightings of elephants and the location based on the visual observation. Our hope was to compare the results of the captured data using the infrasonic detectors against our visual observation. An old fellow who lived in the temple where we parked our van came with us to this place and helped us in various ways for a while and finally went back to the temple. From that point onwards, only Namal and me was left near the reservoir.

Elephants in the distance as seen from the binoculars.
When it was lunch time, Chathura brought two lunch packets and a water bottle to us and went back in the van to the place where they were flying the quad-copter. Namal and me spent the whole evening at this location near the reservoir and had lunch at about 3.30pm while watching elephant herds coming and going to the Udawalawa reservoir. When we finish our lunch there was no any elephant near the reservoir and therefore we both decided to walk to the water and come back immediately if we notice any danger. By the way, while the microphones are recording data, we had nothing else to do there other than watching elephants using the binoculars. It was about 5.30pm when our guys returned to the location we were after flying the drone. Since it was late and many people warned us that elephants can arrive to the place we were hiding after the darkness falls, we decided to grab our stuff and move out of the jungle. We crawled again under the electric fence, loaded our equipment to the van parked near the temple and started moving. It was closer to 6.00pm and the time was right for the Udawalawa elephant orphanage to feed baby elephants with milk. So, we quickly moved in to that place to see it. Finally, we started our journey back to Colombo.

It was about 1.30am when I returned to home in Colombo and was so tired. However, the hope that our recorded data must contain some proof that our elephant localization system works in the real field kept spinning in my mind.


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