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Researchers Testing RFID for Protecting Endangered Plants

The University of Kent's conservation and electronics departments have completed in-house testing of a UHF RFID system to detect the presence of tagged cycads—and to send alerts if a tag stops transmitting, which could indicate a possible poacher.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 13, 2017

Researchers at the University of Kent are teaming up with the South African National Biodiversity Institute to raise funding that will enable the launch of a radio frequency identification-based solution to protect rare and endangered plants from poaching. The University of Kent's researchers have developed and tested a system in house that detects when an RFID-tagged plant is removed from its expected location. Software can then forward an alert to park rangers and other individuals, warning them of a potential poaching event.

The next step, for both the U.K. college and the South African institute, is to gather funding to deploy the technology at national parks throughout South Africa, where it can be used to monitor endangered cycads.

David Roberts
The system was devised by David Roberts, a associate professor in biodiversity conservation in the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology in Kent's School of Anthropology and Conservation, and John Batchelor, a professor of antenna technology in Kent's School of Electronics and Digital Arts, to help automatically identify when threatened plants are being removed. It thereby enables local law enforcement to prevent that action before the perpetrators can leave a park or other site.

The group is initially testing the technology on cycads since such seed plants are threatened and highly vulnerable to theft. These cacti predate the Jurassic period, the researchers explain. Cycads can make dramatic ornaments for gardens, golf courses, hotels or other properties, and are thus valued at up to $1,000 per plant, depending on their size. This makes the tree vulnerable in its natural settings, such as rocky outcrops in South Africa. Approximately 40 percent of cycads are currently endangered, in part because they have been heavily poached.

Several years ago, Roberts says, he heard Batchelor speak about the value of RFID technology for such processes as wheelchair management in health-care facilities. "That got me thinking about what I could do with the technology to protect plants," he recalls. The resulting solution was designed by the two scientists' conservation and electronics teams. The system consists of a fixed RFID reader to capture the transmissions of passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags on cycads in real time, so that it can immediately detect the removal of a plant from its read range.

Researchers are attaching a container with a built-in tag containing a UHF chip from Impinj, with the university's own customized tamper-proof case, to each cycad's base. To do this, the team screws the case that contains the tag directly to the trunk via a concealed screw. The tag case is intended to be tamper-proof, Roberts says. "Ripping the box from the plant would cause the screw to remain in the plant," Batchelor explains, "and it would rip apart the tag in the box." Trying to remove the RFID chip from the case would also be impossible, he adds. Prying open the case lid would rip the chip from the tag inside the case, thereby rendering it inoperable.

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