A UCT professor is developing a method that combines robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) that will essentially conduct health check-ups on wildlife.
This project, presented by associate professor Amir Patel, is set to be a trailblazer for ecology and conservation management in South Africa.
Patel said an increasing number of wild animals were contracting diseases from people and domestic animals.
“It’s difficult to monitor animals in the wild because it requires drawing their blood and assessing their droppings,” he said.
“There are also other time and resource-intensive monitoring options that don’t allow rapid disease identification and interventions to address the problem.”
The technology he is developing will help provide ecologists and veterinarians with an early warning system to help detect whether an animal was ill, which can prevent the spread of diseases.
The project was created in direct response to this challenge. Patel said the plan is to employ techniques that are traditionally used in robotics.
“Techniques such as computer vision, machine learning, mechanical modelling and sensor fusion will assist in remotely measuring the vital signs of wildlife,” he said.
For his first attempt at using robotics and AI, Patel monitored lions through data collection and developing algorithms.
Patel said novel (virus or bacterial strain that was not previously identified) diseases can decimate entire wildlife populations and ripple through ecosystems.
“Lions as an endangered species can contract canine distemper from domestic dogs or bovine tuberculosis from cattle, which can spread through a pride if not detected early,” he said.
Patel was recently named the 2023 recipient of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust Fellowship Award. He plans to use the funding from the fellowship to fast track this work, next year.
“I am excited to spend my sabbatical at the University of Oxford to accelerate this project,” he said.
“I believe that it will be a catalyst for my career and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds.”