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EarthRanger at work
The EarthRanger software platform pulls together data from drones, animal collars, vehicle tracking and other sources. (Vulcan Photo)

One of the legacies left behind by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder who passed away last October, is a drone development program aimed at providing aerial intelligence for Africa’s anti-poaching efforts.

The program takes a share of the spotlight in a behind-the-scenes report about Allen’s philanthropic operation at Vulcan Inc., published last week by Inside Philanthropy.

Vulcan has been working for years on a surveillance program for elephants and other African species, including the use of autonomous aerial vehicles to patrol protected areas. Allen’s team sought a regulatory exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration three years ago to test drones such as the DJI Phantom 3 and the UASUSA Tempest for conservation purposes.

The in-house drone program has advanced significantly since then. Inside Philanthropy reports Vulcan is adapting off-the-shelf equipment to create affordable drones that are optimized for anti-poaching surveillance.

Aerial imagery from small planes played a part in the Allen-backed Great Elephant Census, which highlighted hot spots where elephant populations were facing dramatic declines. And aircraft are continuing to feed imagery into EarthRanger, a data visualization and analysis software platform developed by Vulcan that also pulls together inputs from digital radios, animal collars, vehicle sensors and satellites.

EarthRanger helps conservationists and law-enforcement officials quickly identify suspicious activity and marshal a quick response.

There’s also a longer-range payoff.

“EarthRanger technology allows you to track where and when incidents are happening over time in order to draw trends,” Eric Schmidt, executive director and founding partner of Wildlife Protection Solutions, is quoted as saying in a recent Vulcan update on the project’s status. “If you identify a series of active hotspots in a given area, you can determine a need to redeploy additional technology resources into this area to make for stronger protection.”

For now, elephants are the main focus for EarthRanger, but the domain-awareness technology can be applied to other fields in wildlife preservation, environmental monitoring, security and community building.

Art Min, who leads Vulcan’s Impact team, said last November in a Medium post that he and his colleagues are “passionate about doing good.” And drones as well as data will play a significant part in that mission.

“We are committed to getting better data and tools into the hands of those doing good on the front lines,” Min wrote. “In other words, we want to give them superpowers.”

Correction for 1:25 p.m.PT Jan. 29: This story has been amended to reflect the fact that the Great Elephant Census made use of aerial imagery from small airplanes rather than from drones.

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