Young entrepreneur Badr Idrissi never waited to be told what to do. Instead, he looked for innovative solutions to problems. He would often take the family TV or video recorder to pieces. “My parents would always tell me to put it back together!” he says. “But that’s how I learned to fix things.”
Today, thirty-seven-year-old Idrissi, from Morocco, is CEO and co-founder of ATLAN Space, a deep technology startup using drones and artificial intelligence to crack down on illegal fishing and protect natural resources in Africa.
“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,” he says. “We dug deeper into the statistics and what we found shocked us.”
They found, for example, that Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, lose an estimated USD2.3 billion in total to illegal fishing annually, as reported by Frontiers in marine science.
A former Microsoft Account Executive with a degree in Telecommunications Engineering, Idrissi and his co-founder worked hard to find a solution. They developed software technology that arms unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, with artificial intelligence.
“The drones use artificial intelligence to decide where to go. We give them information about protected marine areas, illegal fishing hotspots, and the weather. We also program them to distinguish each context,” he explains.
“For example, if a fishing boat is detected, the drone will analyze its behavior based on whether it is located in a protected marine park, what it is doing, whether there is a fleet, etc., to decide if its activity is illegal. It will use the context to decide whether or not to report the situation.”
Other drones can only cover a radius of about 70 kilometers and need a human pilot. ATLAN Space’s technology increases the operational range of the drones, and allows them to monitor very large marine areas without any human interaction.
Depending on the number of hotspots which need to be monitored, one drone can cover 10,000 square kilometers . They fly at over 300 meters, making them 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,” he says.
The novelty of the technology lies in its ability to bypass the need for human intervention over long distances. The drones can cover a large area and make autonomous decisions. For example, two drones can communicate and ‘decide’ to split up and track two different boats.
But Idrissi’s vision is not to replace humans altogether. “Our technology is there to help people do their jobs more effectively. Illegal activities destroy jobs, for example in the tourism industry,” he says.
ATLAN Space has won a National Geographic award to fund its “FishGuard pilot” partnership, which will deploy the drones for the first time, to tackle illegal fishing in the Republic of Seychelles.
FishGuard is a unique partnership that includes in addition to ATLAN Space, Trygg Mat Tracking – a Norwegian analytical non-profit and the international organization Grid-Arendal, to provide technological solutions to combat illegal fishing.
Idrissi estimates that this system costs half of what is already commercially available on the market, making it a highly cost effective option for tackling illegal activity, especially among emerging economies.
“The deployment cost of the FishGuard solution depends on many parameters and is specific to each project. It doesn’t only include the technological element, but also capacity building for a sustainable ocean resources management strategy,” says Idrissi.
“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 expect this will have a deterrent effect, because people will see that the area is monitored,” he says.
After deploying its solution in the Seychelles, Idrissi plans to expand the model to tackle other environmental problems like deforestation and illegal mining in future.
Idrissi believes that while there is much potential for startups like his in Africa, entrepreneurs and innovators still face challenges. “I do feel that today we focus on educating young people about how to be an employee. That doesn’t allow people to be creative – and that is risky.”
UN Environment Regional Information Officer for Africa, Mohamed Atani, notes that supporting young entrepreneurs in Africa is critical for sustainable development, and for finding more innovative solutions like FishGuard in future.
“Today more than ever, we need young people like Idrissi, who understand challenges in Africa, and who find solutions for which there is great demand,” says Atani. “Entrepreneurs are not people who fail to find a job – they have immense vision for the future. We must support that.”