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Startup develops animal detection system to prevent roadkill

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Credit: Fernanda Delborgo Abra / ViaFauna

Wildlife roadkill not only makes endangered species more vulnerable, these accidents also put the lives of road users at risk and may oblige road operators to disburse costly compensation. Considering that domestic animals such as horses, cattle, and dogs are just as likely to be victims, one can fully grasp at the size of the issue. More than 23,000 road accidents involving users and animals were recorded in the Brazilian state of São Paulo alone between 2005 and 2013.

Measures on mitigating wildlife-vehicles collisions have always been the drive behind biologist Fernanda Delborgo Abra, founder of ViaFauna, a road mitigation firm. Together with two partners — Mariane Rodrigues Biz Silva e Paula Ribeiro Prist — she started the concept for Brazil's first ever electronic roadside animal detection system. "The scientific literature shows animal detection systems can reduce the number of collisions by as much as 90%.", says Abra.

Christened as "Passa-Bicho", the prototype was developed with support from the São Paulo Research Foundation's Innovative Research in Small Business (PIPE) Program. The system comprises a pair of motion sensors (transmitter and receiver) affixed to short poles similar to those used for speed traps and installed 100 m apart. "Each pair of sensors covers a roadkill hotspot," Abra explains.

The transmitter sends the receiver a beam of infrared light, which is invisible to humans and other vertebrates. When the beam is interrupted by an animal, the sensor sends a signal to the pole, which in turn transmits the information via radio, activating an electronic message panel or, in a simpler version, a revolving beacon light on top of an animal crossing sign.

"Our detection system warns drivers hundreds of meters or even a kilometer or two ahead of an actual animal crossing, giving them time to take precautions," says Abra. "This system is far more effective than a mere sign warning that wildlife may cross the road," Abra says. "When drivers see static warning signs, they never know when animals will actually cross, and so they tend not to pay too much attention."

Wild and domestic animals of medium-to-large size (over 3 kg) are targeted by ViaFauna's detection system because of their detectability and impact on road safety.

During phase 1 studies of PIPE, between June 2016 and April 2017, Passa-Bicho prototype went through some important changes. Initially, the system would emit visible light to help users see an animal as it crossed the road, but that was discarded. "Our studies led us to conclude that a floodlight would attract insects and their predators, and even scare some wildlife species away," Abra recalls.

Stage 1 of the project enabled the firm to develop a functional prototype powered by solar panels and including data loggers. "Currently, researchers only know how many animals are killed on a road. Our system will show how many cross the road successfully, contributing to studies of animal movement dynamics," Abra says.

The biologist explains that ViaFauna opted for the prevalent system in European countries, simpler than those employed in the United States: on one hand, American models are more sophisticated for their use of thermal imaging cameras and recognition software capable of "decision making"– registering every animal that crosses the road — but on the other hand, they warn road users only when the animal is a safety hazard.

The next step will be to test the prototype at the University of São Paulo's Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ-USP) and see how it withstands weathering. "We also need to make several changes to the prototype to make its design appear more 'market-friendly'," Abra explains.

Multidisciplinarity

During PIPE Stage 1, Abra collaborated with researcher Katia Maria Paschoaletto Micchi de Barros Ferraz, a professor at ESALQ-USP, and Marcel Huijser, an expert on wildlife roadkill mitigation measures at the University of Montana in the US. Both jointly supervised her master's research.

While the project was in progress, Abra realized the need to add other professionals and knowledge areas to her field of study, starting with entrepreneurship. Learning to interact with the business world has perhaps been her greatest challenge. "The first hurdle I had to surmount was internalizing the responsibility of being an entrepreneurial researcher," she says. "Until then, I'd only ever thought of myself as doing pure research."

When she began her master's course, Abra was unaware of the existence of the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Technology (CIETEC), the incubator that was to provide initial support for ViaFauna. "Undergraduate courses in hard sciences fail to discuss anything linked to business," she says. She was introduced to PIPE at CIETEC and given advice on preparing her project for submission to the program, which required several features that made it quite different from the academic projects she was accustomed to.

Later on, still during Stage 1, ViaFauna was selected to participate in the Third Training Program for High-Tech Entrepreneurs offered by PIPE. "The program took us to see several environmental and transportation agencies to help us make sure our projects took market needs into account," Abra explains.

An even stronger impression was made on her by the Leaders in Innovation Fellowships (LIF) training program held in London (UK) between November 28 and December 9, 2016, by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng). Abra and others were able to take the course thanks to a partnership between the RAEng and FAPESP. The two-week program consisted of intensive courses in business management, financial planning, patenting, marketing and publicity, among other topics relating to leadership, innovation, and entrepreneurship. "PIPE makes you aware of the importance of knowing other sciences required for project development," Abra says.

Since Stage 1, Abra has pursued the information she needs to enable her to dialogue with the experts in electronics responsible for making the system work as she conceived it. For Stage 2, the team will be even more multidisciplinary as ViaFauna is joined by Trapa Câmera, a firm that specializes in wildlife camera traps and other environmental monitoring devices, and Hoobox Robotic, a robotics, and artificial intelligence startup also supported by PIPE. Both firms will participate in tests of ViaFauna's prototype. "Today's professionals have to be multidisciplinary. You can't stay within the confines of your initial training," Abra says.

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About São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)

The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is a public institution with the mission of supporting scientific research in all fields of knowledge by awarding scholarships, fellowships, and grants to investigators linked with higher education and research institutions in the State of São Paulo, Brazil. FAPESP is aware that the very best research can only be done by working with the best researchers internationally. Therefore, it has established partnerships with funding agencies, higher education, private companies, and research organizations in other countries known for the quality of their research and has been encouraging scientists funded by its grants to further develop their international collaboration. For more information: http://www.fapesp.br/en.

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Heitor Shimizu
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