A Frontier Town, Polar Bears, and the Open-Platform Video Surveillance Community

A Frontier Town, Polar Bears, and the Open-Platform Video Surveillance Community

Milestone teams up with NMS Security, SpotterRF and Polar Bears International to deploy a unique camera/radar solution to help the city of Churchill, Manitoba keep citizens and polar bears at a safe distance from each other.

Known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, the town of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, sits on the northwest shore of the Hudson Bay. It is famous for the many polar bears that come ashore here each summer when the sea ice melts. On the edge of the Arctic, Churchill offers the feel of a frontier town but has the amenities expected of an international tourist destination.

Set amid rugged wilderness, Churchill's 1,000 residents meld tradition and innovation. This remote, yet accessible, northern community stays connected to the world with cell phone coverage and high-speed wireless internet, making the town the perfect setting to address a centuries-old problem by employing modern technology.

A World-Class Challenge

Home to the largest and most accessible polar bear population on the planet, Churchill grabs the spotlight every fall when nearly 10,000 tourists pour into town to view the polar bears that gather on the shores of Hudson Bay to wait for the sea ice to return. The bears await the return of the ice so they can hunt seals. But polar bears are not the only attraction bringing in tourists. Churchill offers a wide range of other activities, including elevated Tundra Buggyâ safaris, dog-sled rides, and excursions to see the northern lights.

To help humans and polar bears maintain a safe distance from each other, Churchill has a Polar Bear Alert program staffed with wildlife officers. When a community member spots a bear, they call a hotline and wildlife officers are dispatched to scare the bear out of town or safely immobilize it and transfer it to a holding facility until the bear can be released back to the wild.

Over the last several years, with the impact of modern climate change, the ice-free period on Hudson Bay has lengthened by roughly one month compared with the 1980s, forcing polar bears to fast for longer periods of time and causing some to wander into town to find food. With more than 300 polar bear response calls made in 2016, the number continues to rise. The seasonal need for wildlife officer patrols and intervention is becoming increasingly expensive for the town, creating the need for a new option to be explored.

The Video/Radar Solution

Polar Bears International (PBI) is the only conservation group with a sole focus on polar bears.

Through media, science, and advocacy this non-profit organization works diligently to address the issues that threaten polar bears and their sea ice habitat. PBI has been working with the town of Churchill for many years, observing, monitoring, tracking and performing valuable field research with this unique polar bear population.

"At Polar Bears International, part of our mission is to be involved with helping prevent conflicts between polar bears and humans," said BJ Kirschhoffer, Director of Field Operations, Polar Bears International. "When we looked at what Churchill was dealing with, we thought it might be a good match for a camera and radar solution that we observed a few years ago on the other side of the continent."

In 2014, Anchorage, Alaska-based Milestone Partner NMS Security was working with a major energy company to help deal with a similar polar bear issue. An oil pipeline operation needed to better protect its workers from polar bears, and vice-versa. NMS Security worked with its technology partner, SpotterRF, to deploy and fine-tune the use of a small, ground-based intrusion detection radar system as a solution.

Just-in-time Warning Alerts

The system is designed to spot polar bears while they are still at a safe distance and position a camera on the bears so operation managers can view the situation and decide what actions to take. A single SpotterRF compact radar unit can fit in a backpack, weighs less than four pounds, and can cover an area of up to 380 acres.

"The system does a great job of tracking polar bear movement and giving workers enough of a warning to pack up and get out," said Ed Knoch, Director of Security Technology Solutions, NMS Security. "We’ve been doing this in Alaska for a few years now, and we've gotten really good at it."

NMS Security worked with SpotterRF and Milestone Systems to develop an integrated plug-in for the XProtect video management software (VMS), allowing the radar system to be controlled seamlessly, directly through the Milestone interface. NMS Security won the 2017 Milestone Integration of the Year award for the SpotterRF plug-in.

Polar Bears International was performing field research in Alaska and happened to be at the pipeline camp when NMS and SpotterRF were installing and setting up the solution.

"The radar and camera setup seemed like a great idea, and it's been on our minds since we saw it," said Kirschhoffer. "So, we explained the solution and proposed it to Churchill wildlife managers, and they agreed that it would be a good fit for their situation."

A Plan of Action

In early 2017, Churchill managers met with PBI and NMS Security and developed a plan to install a camera and two radar units on the town's busiest public building. This building houses the school, hospital and community center, and is located on the Hudson Bay shore, adjacent to an active polar bear migration corridor. From this vantage point, they would be able to detect incoming and departing bears near the complex and along the north-facing shoreline.

"Churchill is an ideal place to test this technology. It's a community that has lived with polar bears for centuries, and in recent years, the government has developed strategies to help protect the community and manage polar bears to the best of their abilities," said Liz Larsen, Director of Conservation for Utah's Hogle Zoo, located in Salt Lake City, a PBI partner and sponsor of the program. "The previous strategy relies on people actually spotting polar bears — which is difficult being a white animal in all-white surroundings — and is expensive, requiring 24-hour patrols in peak season."

A Canon VB-R10VE vandal-resistant, outdoor PTZ dome camera and two SpotterRF radar units were installed by NMS Security partner Johnson Controls out of Calgary, on their behalf. A Dell server runs the Milestone VMS platform with the Spotter XProtect plug-in interface installed. When a bear is detected, the system is triggered to automatically send out email alerts and sound a bear warning alarm throughout the community.

"This is not an after-the-fact solution," said Knoch. "We're able to track bears in real time, and we can see its speed and heading, its distance from the radar unit and its total distance traveled."

Through the Milestone Mobile application, the system can send notifications directly to the bear alert system and to wildlife officers so they can see the radar screen and camera views on their smartphones. The radar units provide warnings at about 200 meters out from the shoreline, giving people enough time to get into the community center and away from the bear.

"Another beauty of this system is that we can have volunteers or paid technicians virtually anywhere there's internet, and they can monitor the system and use the tools to visually verify a bear's presence," said Kirschhoffer. "Eventually, we want to add some more radar units, as well as test the system's ability to automate bear-deterrent devices, perhaps triggering a strobe light to frighten away bears when they reach certain areas."

Replicating the Success

Knoch explained that the system, which is in the pilot phase, has the potential to provide a new level of safety in Churchill, complementing the community’s successful Polar Bear Alert program.

"We're very happy with all the elements of the project. The radar units, the camera, the Milestone video management software, everything is working well," said Kirschhoffer. "NMS Security did a fantastic job of getting us set up. All the pieces are pretty complex, and it's important to have a partner like that when doing these projects."

With the camera/radar system up and running and yielding positive results, there is no doubt among the team that there is great potential for Churchill and for replicating this system into more polar bear impacted communities, as well as within environments around the world where humans and wildlife come in conflict. Wild elephants, hippos and other non-predator species, for example, often raid and destroy crops, threatening humans and provoking a lethal response.

"There are many habitats around the world where humans and wildlife are sharing the same space and competing for water and food. As conservationists, we need to look at different strategies to help people and wildlife coexist," said Larsen. "There's good potential here that this technology could contribute to wildlife conservation in a wide variety of ways. We see this project as being a promising tool to help ensure long-term population sustainability, particularly in communities that are going to be left vulnerable in the face of climate change.

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