On Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, one town has installed a robot “monster wolf” to protect residents from encroaching bears. The scarecrow wolf is equipped with a motion sensor that, when tripped, spurs the metallic beast into a red LED-eyed, howling sequence, according to Japankyo.
The cyber wolf was created as a joint project between Hokkaido-based machinery firm Ohta Seiki, Hokkaido University, and the Tokyo University of Agriculture, Mainichi reports. Bots were first placed on Hokkaido farmland in 2016 to fend off wolves and other predators from livestock. Now there are more than 62 monster wolves across all of Japan. However, Takikawa’s recent installation is the first meant to protect humans.
"We want to let the bears know, 'Human settlements aren't where you live,' and help with the coexistence of bears and people," said Yuji Ota, head of Ohta Seiki in an interview with Mainichi.
This Princess Mononoke-gone-metal ideal of beast, man, and machine living harmoniously has worked in wildlife management before, according to Dave Thau, Global Data and Technology Lead Scientist of Global Science at the World Wildlife Fund. Although a new science, Thau says robots are enhancing global conservation efforts — from swimming the depths picking up trash to gathering insights on the backs of flying beetles.
“Many of these applications are very new and not yet widely deployed, making it exciting times for any conservation minded roboticists,” Thau said in an email to Motherboard. “We’re using technology to monitor biodiversity and environmental health as well as helping reduce illegal exploitation of wildlife and reduce human/wildlife conflict.”
For the town of just more than 36,500 residents, bear sightings were extremely rare, according to Mainichi. There’s typically one sighting every few years, but this year since the end of May, there have been 10 in the town alone. While there is no conclusive reason for the Takikawa uptick, the Japan Times reported a similar surge in the Hokkaido town of Shimamaki.
Takikawa officials have placed the 4-footlong, 3-foot high scarecrow in a neighborhood just outside of the city center. It will remain there until hibernation season begins at the end of November. The robots have proven themselves useful in fending off boars and deer in crop fields, but the trial is still out for how they will fare with bears. While rare, Hokkaido is known for its higuma, or brown bear, which are similar to the American grizzly.
“Hiking in Hokkaido, especially places where bear sightings are prevalent, requires bringing a bear bell and it isn’t for amateur hikers,” said Yumi Anngraini, a former resident of the Hokkaido town Sapporo and an avid hiker, in an Instagram DM to Motherboard. “I think I would feel safer with this robot making sure the surrounding area is safe before I get there.”
In addition to its practical use, Anngraini said she also believes the wolf installation is a fun spectacle and a good way to bring tourists into the area.
Thau also says there are some concerns about pollution when it comes to wildlife management via robotics. The manufacturing and implementation of these sorts of technologies inherently come with environmental side effects.
“At some point sensors will become small and cheap enough that they could be deployed very widely. The risk here is that we pollute the environment while trying to preserve it,” said Thau. “At the same time, humans are impacting most of the planet, so wildlife is seriously impacted by our actions. WWF is working to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, and we use technology to do that.”
Still, Thau is confident environmentally-based tech is heading in the right direction and will do more good than harm.