By Oscar Nkala, Guy Martin
US company Airware has deployed an Aerial Ranger unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to track down rhino poachers in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta conservancy – East Africa’s largest black rhino reserve – in an effort to showcase the potential of such aircraft.
Airware in December sent a three-person team to Kenya to carry out in-field tests of the Aerial Ranger to see how it could observe, track and protect wildlife.
Airware specialises in building UAV hardware, software and firmware. The company plans to launch its commercial UAV platform later this year and in anticipation of this, it wanted to educate people on the positive uses of UAVs, according to Airware founder and CEO Jonathan Downey.
As a result, Airware deployed the Aerial Ranger to Kenya to monitor for poachers, with Airware supplying the autopilot and control software. “The drone, equipped with Airware’s autopilot platform and control software, acts as both a deterrent and a surveillance tool, sending real-time digital video and thermal imaging feeds of animals – and poachers – to rangers on the ground using both fixed and gimbal-mounted cameras,” Airware said.
The company’s digital mapping interface has been designed for ease of use – users click a spot on the map to either get the UAV to fly there or point its camera there. Another feature is an autoland instruction.
As it is able to capture real time video and thermal imaging data, the UAV can operate day and night. The footage captured by the UAV could be used to identify poachers and help convict them in court. In addition to combating poaching the UAVs have the potential to cost effectively count wildlife - the conservancy usually does its annual wildlife survey with a light aircraft. Thirteen hours of flight time are required at $220 an hour, but a UAV could do this for a fraction of the cost, during the day and at night.
While at Ol Pejeta, Airware’s flight team tested multiple airframes including conventional fixed-wing and flying-wing. One aircraft for the programme was the UAS-USA Tempest, with an endurance of 90-120 minutes, a top speed of 100 km/h and a flight range of 75-125 km. The team demonstrated bungee and wheeled launches, as well as parachute and wheeled landings. They also flew beyond line of sight, testing both range of real-time digital video and contingency plans for loss of communications. In one instance when communications were lost, the UAV’s failsafe activated and it automatically returned to land.
“While the Aerial Ranger surpassed all expectations during its two-week African safari, there is still some way to go before it makes a regular appearance in the skies of Ol Pejeta,” the conservancy said. “Ol Pejeta and Airware are committed to making the Aerial Ranger effective and long lasting, a challenge easier said than done as many testing UAVs in the field have learnt. While the sensors are tweaked, the screws tightened and the wires adjusted, wildlife conservationists everywhere can prepare themselves for a revolution.”
The conservancy used crowdfunding website Indiegogo to successfully raise $35 000 to buy the first UAV and animal tracking equipment. Ol Pejeta hopes to buy more UAVs to monitor wildlife and facilitate tourism and hopes to put its first UAV in the air by March or June.
“The commercial drone space is a major growth market with applications like precision agriculture, infrastructure inspection and search and rescue," Downey pointed out. The company is hoping to be part of the drone revolution and use its software on commercial drones in the United States.
Meanwhile in South Africa, last year experiments using UAVs to monitor poachers and game were conducted in the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. The park employed IT security company Shaya Technologies to assist it curb rhino poaching.
Two types of UAVs were used during the pilot project at Hluhluwe. The first, with a 3.5 m wingspan, was powered by a petrol motor, and could stay in the air for five to six hours. The UAVs in the second fleet were smaller, electric hex rotor copters. These were typically quick reaction aircraft, used to investigate suspicious activity.
During the month-long demonstration in the park in mid-2013, not a single rhino there was poached.
A separate initiative, by a group called Conservation Drones, is already utilising UAVs at as many as 20 sites around the world. One of its projects involves using UAVs to count orangutan nests in the jungles of Sumatra, Indonesia. Making use of high-definition cameras and GPS-mounted navigation software, UAVs are able to cover large territories in less time than ground-based crews.
Back in South Africa, at present a Denel Seeker II UAV is deployed to combat rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park, which lost 606 rhinos last year in comparison, Kenya lost 50 rhinos in 2013. The Seeker is flown regularly at night when it is more difficult to operate manned aircraft.
Jerker Ahlqvist, general manager of Saab Aeronautics South Africa, sees UAVs as enhancing the operational effectiveness of rangers and law enforcement agencies, including the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), when it comes to counter-poaching operations.
The company is promoting its Skeldar rotary wing UAV to fight poaching, saying the aircraft can be utilised for surveillance, reconnaissance, aerial photography and border patrol. One of the benefits of the rotary wing design is that it does not need a landing strip to land and take off from, making it useful for bush operations.