The brain behind the idea of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to curb illegal fishing is a Moroccan entrepreneur known as Badr Idrissi. he is a former Microsoft Accountant with a degree in Telecommunications Engineering. The creative entrepreneur has had a love for technology since his childhood years. He recalls how he used to break the family TV and video recorder out of curiosity of how things are made. “My parents would always tell me to put it together. But that’s how I learned to fix things, he said.
The thirty-seven-year-old entrepreneur is the founder and the CEO of ATLAN Space, a deep technology startup with the objective of curbing illegal fishing in the African waters in order to protect the natural resources.
“I had a conversation with a friend, Younes Moumen who is also a Co-Founder of ATLAN Space, about our terrible track record in Africa on illegal fishing, poaching, deforestation. We dug deep into the statistics and what we found shocked us.” They found out that Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, and Sierra Leone lose a total of US$2.3 billion to illegal fishing according to research by Frontiers in Marine Science. Startled by the findings, Dr. Idrissi and his Co-Founder embarked on finding a solution. They invented a software technology that arms unmanned aerial vehicles with artificial intelligence.
“The drones use artificial intelligence to decide where to go. We give them information about protected marine areas, illegal fishing hot spots, and the weather. We also program them to distinguish each context,” he said. For instance, if a fishing boat is detected, the drone will analyze its behavior based on whether it is located in a marine park, what it is doing, whether there’s a fleet, etc., to decide whether or not to report the situation.”
ATLAN Space’s drones cover a wider range without a human pilot, therefore, monitoring very large marine areas. One drone can cover over 10,000 square kilometers and fly at 300 meters. They are therefore unreachable by non-military means.
“If the drone is 95 percent sure that behavior is illegal, it will send the relevant local authorities information detailing the time of the occurrence, the GPS coordinates, the location, and any other relevant data that will help them decide on the course of action.” Drones go a long way in overlooking human interaction over long distances. In light of that, they can make autonomous decisions for instance, two drones can decide to split tasks and track 2 different boats.
Idrissi’s technology is to enhance the work of humans in disguise but not to replace them. He says, “Our technology is here to help people do their jobs more effectively. Illegal activities destroy jobs, e.g. in the tourism industry.
ATLAN Space has won a National Geographic award to fund a partnership dubbed as FishGuard Pilot which expects to use drones to track illegal fishing activities in the republic of Seychelles. It includes Trygg Mat Tracking- a Norwegian non-profit startup and International Grid-Arendal to provide a long-lasting solution to illegal fishing.
Despite how promising the project is in efforts to end illegal fishing, the project costs way more than what is available in the market. More so, in the emerging economies. ” The deployment cost of the Fish Guard solution depends on many parameters and is specific to each project. It does not only include the technology element, but also capacity building for a sustainable ocean resources management strategy. ”
“This is about more than detecting crime. We can build Marine Protection capacity; understand trends and patterns to see the bigger picture of what is happening at sea. We will see if this will have a deterrent effect because people will see that the area is monitored,” Idrissi said.
After the projects roll out well in Seychelles, plans are underway to expand the model in tackling environmental challenges like deforestation and illegal mining. Though the opportunity for tech startups is great in Africa, pressing challenges are there. “I do feel that today we focus on educating young people on how to be an employee. That does not allow people to be creative, and that is risking.”
“The toughest situation we find ourselves in today is making Africans believe that we can do artificial intelligence and deep learning technology and that we can do what’s done in the US. Many people had doubts about whether we could do it or not. We face those questions. So, yes, the toughest situation we face is when talking with public figures and they say something along the lines of this not being something that people like us can do in Morocco or Africa.”