By Guy Martin
Unmanned aerial vehicles are flying hundreds of missions to combat rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park as part of a year-long evaluation project to gauge their effectiveness, with positive results so far.
SANParks Board Chairperson Kuseni Dlamini recently said that an integral part of the current strategy to combat rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park is applying and evaluating various technologies which include UAVs. “This aims at investigating the effectiveness of various UAV technologies as instruments in rhino protection efforts under a range of operational conditions”.
Dlamini said that “by the end of the project we will have a lot of information about the use of available technology in anti-poaching operations and be able to make informed decision on what is best for our environment.”
South African company UAV and Drone Solutions (UDS) is flying UAVs in the Kruger National Park with the brief to test and evaluate the use of unmanned technology. After the year-long evaluation is up, SANParks will make a decision regarding their permanent use.
UDS said that it is using around ten different UAVs, both battery and petrol powered, and fixed wing and multi-rotor. The fixed wing aircraft range from 2.1 metre to 3.1 metre wingspans. These UAVs are locally assembled with various South African designed and built components, such as gimbals. When parts break in the field, such as due to crashes, some of them are printed using a 3D printer on site. The UAVs are specifically tailored to local requirements and built to withstand the harsh environment of the Kruger.
In the future UDS will also fly scale helicopters with a range of 50 km and endurance of 2.5 to 4 hours. Unmanned helicopters are more versatile than fixed wing aircraft due to their ability to take off and land vertically in thick bush but are far more noisy than fixed wing aircraft.
UDS said the aircraft of choice is an electric fixed wing UAV with an endurance of 2.5 hours and a range of 30 km. These are mostly flown at night, with infrared cameras. UDS said the most important thing was to fly low and slow in order to find the poachers on the ground and for that, small electric powered UAVs were ideal.
The UAVs are deployed via a self-contained vehicle that can have the aircraft flying in minutes. The aircraft are flown from a van that also contains a game ranger who interfaces with anti-poaching units.
The aim of using UAVs to combat poaching is twofold: to catch poachers and deter them from poaching an animal in the first place.
UDS said it hopes to make UAV technology user friendly and affordable so it can be deployed across Africa to all conservation hotspots in an effort to protect the continent’s wildlife.
The UAV deployment is supported by the South African National Defence Force, South African Civil Aviation Authority and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and is one component of a suite of anti-poaching initiatives supported by the Rhino Protection Programme (RPP). The RPP is a collaborative effort between the Department of Environmental Affairs, SANParks, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (Ezemvelo), and Peace Parks Foundation.