Vic-made robot to fight African poachers

In Africa's vast national parks, armed poachers and militants threaten rangers with brutal violence, while researchers half a world away in regional Victoria engineer a robot to combat them.

The Ground Unmanned System, dubbed "GUS", is a high-tech surveillance robot equipped with wide-angle, zoom and thermal cameras to detect enemies, along with an AI-driven microphone to identify sounds.

The robot is intended to help with wildlife conservation but has also attracted attention from armed forces.

Whether there are gunshots ringing in the air or elephants snorting, GUS is designed to differentiate between the noises.

If the robot's microphone picks up on a motorbike, for example, its cameras can be used to verify if the rider is an intruder, according to Federation University senior mechatronics lecturer Gayan Kahandawa.

"In Africa, rangers have been killed because those who have entered the parks have sophisticated weapons and are on motorbikes - they are equipped to survive in this environment," he said.

Anti-poaching specialist Luke Townsend approached the Federation University researchers, who are based in Gippsland, in 2020 to develop GUS in response to the increasing threat to rangers in West Africa.

Along with its camera and microphone system, the robot has a drone that takes off when a panel opens, sending footage back to a command centre to help rangers avoid dangerous encounters.

Mr Townsend, the project's manager, funded its development along with a group of friends.

He hopes to get a field-ready version to Benin by March next year.

"The rangers in some parks, such as those in West Africa, find themselves in a full-on counter-insurgency," Mr Townsend told AAP.

The country's militants are from a local branch of al-Qaeda and use explosives and ambushes to kill rangers or scare them away from parks, he said, while others face highly motivated, professional poachers.

Mr Townsend, a former army captain from Victoria's Latrobe Valley, has served in both the Australian and British armies and also sees GUS's potential to alert soldiers to unwanted presences in risky situations.

For that reason, the Australian Army has also expressed interest in the robot, the researchers say.

Dr Kahandawa said armed forces were keen to trial some units once they had been upgraded with the military in mind, while another updated model will be made for use in Africa.

A defence spokesperson said the army was talking to the university to learn more about the robot and its potential applications.

While GUS can already detect animal sounds, the researchers want the revised African model to find animals' locations and lead rangers to them, and feature improved energy storage.

Researcher Hasitha Hewawasam, who led development of the robot's electronics and programming, added the African model also needs to be easy for locals to maintain.

"They should be able to find whatever the spare parts (they need) in Africa ... (so) we don't have to ship any spare parts from Australia," Dr Hewawasam told AAP.

Mr Townsend is seeking donors to raise $40,000 to get GUS to West Africa by next year.