NANYUKI, Kenya, (Xinhua) -- East Africa’s largest black rhino sanctuary Ol Pejeta on Tuesday called on bright students to develop a specialized software for their drone to supplement security efforts for the protection of the endangered animals.
The privately owned conservancy said it has teamed up with U.S. firm MindSumo to build visual and thermal recognition software for conservation work.
“Bright college students from around the world help solve these problems, one of which will soon be the development of recognition software for Ol Pejeta’s Aerial RangerTM - a software that can use a combination of visual and thermal signatures to identify wildlife automatically,” Ol Pejeta said in a statement.
“The students with the best solutions to the problems on MindSumo are rewarded with prizes. In this case, the grand-prize winner will receive a trip to Ol Pejeta to help implement the winning solution.”
Last month, Ol Pejeta teamed up with Airware, makers of the platform for commercial drone, to pioneer use of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in support of conservation.
A three-man team from Airware in the U.S. travelled to Kenya last month to carry out a series of intensive, in-the-field tests of a prototype Aerial RangerTM which is being molded specifically to observe, track and protect wildlife from poaching.
The electrically powered “aerial ranger,” with a final cost of about 70,000 U.S. dollars, will be fitted with a high-definition camera featuring a powerful zoom for day operations and infrared thermal imaging for night flights. Each aerial mission is expected to cover an area of 50 square miles over a 90-minute flight.
It will fly three or four times a day, monitoring the locations of the endangered species and transmitting a live stream to a laptop on the ground, providing key information that will enable rangers to reach vulnerable areas and fend off any potential poaching dangers. On Tuesday, the conservancy said a prototype has since been trialed, and that its sophisticated autopilot platform and control software seems unrivaled. “But the thermal and visual cameras on board, which can deliver real time imaging to the ground team, have only just scratched the surface in terms of their potential,” it said.
Unarmed drones have been deployed by a number of conservancies across the world in recent years to protect endangered species but this is the first time they have been tested in East Africa.
“The drone being developed by Ol Pejeta and Airware has the obvious benefits of acting as an anti-poaching device, but could also revolutionize wildlife censuses,” it said.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a 90,000-acre game reserve boasting a wide array of wildlife, including the endangered black and white rhinos, elephants, leopards, lions and chimpanzees.
Since late 2009, it has also been home to four of the last seven northern white rhinos left in the world.
There are a number of tracking technologies out there, including ultra high frequency radio tags in rhino horn and other such transmitter based techniques, but most share the same challenges.
First and foremost, the animal has to be darted with an anesthetic in order to fit the tag, which is dangerous both for the capture team on the ground, and the health of the rhino.
Then there is the major challenge of fitting the transmitter in such a way so that it remains attached indefinitely, but doesn’t impinge on the rhino’s natural behavior (which includes rubbing up against trees). Nor should it be excessively visible to tourists.
The chip/sensor system also needs to be powerful enough to cover a large range, which often means battery power is limited to a maximum of 1-2 years. Continually re-drugging animals to change batteries is not an ideal long-term solution.
With this proposed software, The Aerial RangerTM could do all this in a day, at minimal cost, recording footage that can be watched several times over and carefully analyzed.
The east African nation has already created a multi agency anti- poaching crack unit, which has been deployed in the poaching hotspots. The Treasury has already allocated 2.31 million U.S. dollars for the operations of the unit.
The Aerial RangerTM will be able to respond to poaching incidents in the field, sending live footage back to rangers who can help deploy resources in the most efficient way possible.