Boston Coders Build “Yeah Buoii” to Prevent Illegal Fishing at High Sea

Coders may be used to hacking problems related to phishing, but one international contest that a group from Boston is hoping to win is tackling fishing itself.

Four Bostonians have written algorithms and built a prototype buoy that is intended to detect, identify, and track ships on the high seas that enter “no-fish zones” in order to help law enforcement agencies prevent illegal fishing. The group, which calls its project Yeah Buoii, won the Fishackathon 2015 competition in Boston and is now facing off against teams from 11 other cities around the world, ranging from Santiago, Chile to Long Beach, CA. A winner will be picked July 10, the group says.

The Yeah Buoii group—comprised of Mike Li, Alex Cheung, David Wang, and Cloud Cray—won the Boston competition over the weekend of June 6 by building a prototype of a buoy that had a microphone sensor attached to it that could record the sound of a ship’s motor, Wang says. The algorithm that the group wrote was able to differentiate the sound of a ship from the sound of an ocean animal like a whale, he says.

After winning the competition, the group spent the next two weeks perfecting the algorithms and building a better prototype. (The original was made with a pistachio gelato container.) They created a video explaining the project, too.

The Yeah Buoii tool can differentiate between different types of motors, allowing it to track exactly where a ship is, Cray says. With three buoys, the system can triangulate a ship and track where it travels over time, he says.

“If you think there’s a transportation vessel going into this [protected] area, and they don’t leave for a while, you can call the Coast Guard and say, ‘Here’s someone chilling out in a protected zone’,” Cray says.

The system can also be used with other sensors to gather and process information such as water quality, pH levels, and other environmental characteristics, Wang says. While the algorithm is key to the product, advances in computer chip technology allow the group to place low-power “system-on-a-chip” computers into the buoys so they can send data back to a home base for processing, Cray says.

That in turn makes these buoys much lower-cost than existing technology—hundreds of dollars for each one instead of thousands, Wang says.

The group says it hasn’t formed plans to try to make a business out of the development, Wang says. It has made all its code open source and available on GitHub, and plans to continue to make developments publicly available, Cray says.

“This is more of a social good, social benefit project where we want to protect the common shared resource from exploitation,” Wang says. “In that regard, it might be more suitable as a government or NGO venture.”

Indeed, the group developed the project at a government event. Fishackathon 2015 is the second annual event hosted by the U.S. Department of State and GreenWave, a New York and New Haven, CT-based organization focused on climate change. The event intends to help small-scale fishing operations that are being hurt by overfishing, illegal fishing, and climate change, the event website says.

The grand prize winner of the competition gets a trip for two to the GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, and a “people’s choice” award winner will get a trip for two to the Ocean Conference in Santiago, Chile, according to the event’s site.

The Yeah Buoii team did the hacking event, which was held at UMass Boston, for fun and to create positive change, they said. They all have day jobs in the Boston area: Cheung works at Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), Li is an engineer at Raytheon, Wang works in machine learning and natural language processing at a startup called Thunder Wake, and Cray works in finance and data analysis for MedData.

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at Follow @xconholley

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