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'Bear-dar' might help humans keep their distance from Polar Bears


As climate change has reduced sea ice in the Arctic, polar bears have been spending more time on land. That raises the chances of bear-human run-ins that are dangerous for both. Now the conservation organization Polar Bears International is testing a technology they think might help - Bear-dar. It's a radar system to clock incoming polar bears and warn people close by. Joining us now to talk about it is B.J. Kirschhoffer, director of field operations for Polar Bears International. Welcome.

BJ KIRSCHHOFFER: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: Can you talk a little bit more about the Bear-dar? Like, how does it work?

KIRSCHHOFFER: Sure. So the technology that we're using is a motion-tracking radar. The particular device we're testing is made by SpotterRF. They do a lot of kind of security and defense sort of contracts. This particular setup comes right from them. And we're looking at using it, of course, with animals and detecting the bears as they come in to a community or other sensitive areas. The thing, really, is about the size of an iPad. It has no moving parts - pretty energy-efficient little device. And what it does is it just essentially looks for movement. If something's moving out there, especially something as big as a bear, it's pretty darn easy for this radar to see.

RASCOE: This is still in the testing phase, right? You've been testing the technology in Churchill, Manitoba. How's it working?

KIRSCHHOFFER: Yeah, so the device itself works very well. What we've found out is that the device is extremely sensitive and it sees everything - everything down to the little arctic foxes that are running around, wolverines, wolves, moose - everything. And really, if this is going to be an effective tool around a community, we don't want it alerting on the moose. We want it alerting only on polar bears. And that's where the AI component comes in. We need an accurate tool, and building AI models that can say exactly what the animal is out there is where we're headed.

RASCOE: And how much does this cost, like, for the community?

KIRSCHHOFFER: Yeah, so these things are pretty expensive. So do I think it's going to be accessible for every community? To start, probably not. But I think as technology progresses, this stuff will only get more inexpensive. We're working with a group out of Brigham Young University - a group of grad students and professors - that are actually creating a smaller device, a less-expensive device using some of the radars that are found on cars these days to help with some of the self-driving or safety features. And so once you start mass-producing parts like that, they get very, very cheap. So I think there's going to be a range of possibilities in the future. But of course, you know, the first versions off the line are definitely the most expensive.

RASCOE: So are we talking like tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands? How much are we looking at here?

KIRSCHHOFFER: Yeah, right now, I mean, I think we have something like a hundred thousand invested in the equipment itself. Yeah, so it's not inexpensive at all.

RASCOE: And so what's the next step for your organization in developing this Bear-dar?

KIRSCHHOFFER: So we've got two - kind of two things we're working on right now. Working with SpotterRF, we're working to revamp our system. And so we'll be implementing that in the next year. We're going to rebuild the AI models from scratch, and we'll test again. Simultaneously, we're looking at a more mobile platform, maybe in places where a community would say, hey, this is a high bear corridor. And so it's kind of almost like a rapid response sort of tool. So this thing will be testing in Churchill, as well, in the coming year to see how it performs and also allow it to build AI models for us.

RASCOE: That's B.J. Kirschhoffer from Polar Bears International. Thank you for joining us, B.J.

KIRSCHHOFFER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.