16 Aug 2023

Rodents beware: AI device being developed in NZ to kill invasive species

From Checkpoint, 5:54 pm on 16 August 2023
Artificially Intelligent Terminator kills furry ferals almost immediately while leaving native animals and domestic pets alone.

Artificially Intelligent Terminator kills furry ferals almost immediately while leaving native animals and domestic pets alone. Photo: Supplied / Predator Free 2050

An Artificially Intelligent Terminator is in development here in Aotearoa, but it is not quite the same in the movies.

In a ground-breaking evolution in pest control, the new device uses AI to identify and kill an invasive species.

The world-first technology has come 10,000 days before the deadline for Predator Free 2050, on 31 December 2050.

It is created in a partnership between Boffa Miskell and Red Fern Solutions, with funding from Predator Free 2050 Limited.

It kills the furry ferals almost immediately while leaving native animals and domestic pets alone.

Project lead Dr Helen Blackie said the trap also automatically reset, and could last up to a year without being serviced.

"Over 100 kills per trap, so it's extremely long life," she said. "We actually stopped counting at that point, so technically it's probably a lot more."

The trap has been the result of over five years of work by Blackie.

"It's able to identify, at incredibly fast speeds, any species that comes up to it, and if it identifies that animal as being a pest species, then it activates the trap.

"If it identifies that animal as being, say, a native parrot, then it makes sure the trap stays de-activated."

She said the device prevented native animals from being killed, and had so far done it without mistake.

"The best thing about it is it's highly, highly accurate," she said.

And it has all been done as humanely as possible.

"It also enables us to make sure the animal is in the perfect position for the trap to go off."

The device works by using artificial intelligence to scan the animal once it goes in for the bait.

Looking out for features like fur, and face shape, it designates whether it's one of its targets - rats, stoats, and weasels.

Once it tells it is in the right place, it delivers blunt trauma force to the head, causing death almost instantaneously.

And it does all this while resetting itself and saving people from regularly maintaining the trap.

"When we put out our first trap, it killed its first possum within an hour, and then reset itself and killed its next possum two hours later," Blackie said.

"It was almost instantaneous, they walked up, they put their head in, and they were gone."

For the group Predator Free 2050 Limited, it is a game changer, particularly when it comes to saving some of the smarter native birds.

"Kea are notoriously inquisitive and you have to do a lot to keep them out of traps," chief executive Rob Forlong said.

"With this AI stuff they'll figure out, 'that's a kea,' traps not gonna go off; 'that's a rat,' yes it will."

He said it brought the goal much closer to reality.

"It's tools like this artificial intelligence traps, and all those sorts of things, that are gonna get us there.

"Probably the most important is the community involvement, and so many people are working so hard to make these things happen."

The device also had potential worldwide.

In Perth, Murdoch University associate professor Melissa Thomas said it could have major utility in Australia where feral cats threaten the survival of more than 100 native species.

"They have a huge effect on our native fauna, I think every year they kill over a million mammals, and also birds, reptiles and frogs," she said.

The device could potentially be developed to tell the difference between feral and domestic cats by scanning for a microchip or collar.

Thomas said there were unlimited possibilities of the trap.

"It can be adapted relatively easily, so once you've got the platform and you've trained it for a specific section of a species, it doesn't take that much more effort to re-train it on another species."

Blackie also said groups in the UK were showing interest, where grey squirrels had overtaken its red squirrel population.

She hoped the device would be available for commercial use in 2024.