By Avishek G. Dastidar
Rattled by 17 elephants being mowed down to death by a speeding train in Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal two months back, the railways and environment ministries have decided to consider deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to prevent such tragedies.
Collaborating with them in this effort to save jumbos are the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), with IIT-Kanpur suggesting the use of UAVs to track elephant movements near rail tracks and warn train drivers in the vicinity to slow down.
According to railways statistics, 65 elephants have been hit and killed by trains since 2010, mainly in the Northeast Frontier Railway region which covers parts of Bihar, Assam and West Bengal. There were 22 deaths in 2013, the highest in the last three years.
A team of officials from the railways and environment ministries will visit IIT-Kanpur this week to see a demonstration of how UAVs can help keep trains at a safe distance and speed from roaming elephant herds.
"IIT-Kanpur has offered a lot of technological solutions. We will be going there to see how effective they are. I had inquired about the use of certain technologies to stop these accidents, so IIT had said that they could be achieved. Let's see," Devi Prasad Pande, member (traffic), Railway Board, told The Indian Express.
IIT-Kanpur Director Prof Indranil Manna said the institute would work closely with the concerned ministries to develop a UAV that specifically tracks elephants.
"While UAVs are a major thrust area and research subject at IIT-Kanpur which has worked on this technology for diverse uses from mapping of natural resources to meteorology related changes and defence purposes, what the railways need is different," Manna told The Indian Express.
"This UAV has to be equipped with night visibility systems through infrared sensor imaging or so. Also, this UAV has to basically keep under surveillance elephant movement in certain pockets of deep forest around railway tracks as herd movements in open areas are usually relayed by local sources," he said.
UAVs apart, the railways has also tied up with IIT-Delhi for developing early warning devices. The institute will soon be testing - starting with the 165-km tracks between North Bengal's Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar - heat-and-motion sensors that can be fitted on railway tracks to act as an early warning system on the movement of animals.
These sensors will detect animals by their body heat as they move close to the tracks and the same information will then be relayed almost at once to a coordinating centre that will forward it to the train driver.
The railways currently has speed restrictions at stretches prone to elephant movements. Along with state forest departments, it has undertaken erection of electric fences, planting of fruit-bearing trees in areas away from railway tracks and the like.
"We are also constructing underpasses for the movement of elephants at identified locations in consultation with the forest departments and environment ministry. Whatever the technology, the bottomline is they should ultimately work to tackle this problem," Pande said.