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Wildlife conservation takes to the skies with UAV competition

We take a look at the students developing UAV’s that could help find and prosecute wildlife poachers.

Last June, Kenya and South Africa banned unmanned flying vehicles from flying in their airspace. UAVs have long been trumpeted as wildlife conservationists’ most effective potential weapon against poachers, which is rife in these countries.

The Kenyan government raised concerns about the threat UAVs posed to security, amid recent increases in terrorism and political instability in the country. The South African Civil Aviation Authority recently reminded everyone that flying unmanned aerial vehicles with cameras, for commercial gain, is against the law. But there is hope that these bans may eventually be lifted.

It has long been believed that with camera-carrying drones, authorities in areas where animals are at risk from poachers, can quickly and efficiently monitor large areas, locate poachers, and record evidence that will enable them to prosecute the criminals. The challenge is to design a drone that can do the job.

Threatening the survival of endangered species

South Africa lost over 1,000 rhinos last year. In the last three, ivory poachers have killed more than 100,000 African elephants. That’s 64 percent of Africa’s elephants. Illegal wildlife traders are said to earn $10 billion a year. That’s more than arms dealers; only drugs brings in more profit for criminals, worldwide. WWF states that the wildlife crime is the second biggest threat to the survival of threatened species, after habitat destruction. Some experts believe that the bans on UAVs are motivated by a desire to protect corrupt officials involved in the illegal trade.

In other parts of the world, drones are not banned and conservationists can still use UAVs to monitor wildlife and look for criminals. In Namibia they are used to monitor black rhino, Orangutans are kept an eye on in Borneo and UAVs also watch over dugongs, a relative of the manatee, in Shark Bay, Western Australia.

Designing a conservation drone

Conservation drones are not the same unmanned aerial vehicles that have been flying over cities, upsetting civil rights activists, though. Nor are they the weapons grade drones that military forces send into battle to locate and attack well-hidden enemies.

Companies around the world are designing and building UAVs small enough to fit in a ranger’s backpack. Drones that fly silently so as not to scare animals and alert poachers and have the capacity for short or long flights, depending on the type of terrain where they’re being deployed. Now, so too, are students. Thanks to a competition launched in 2013.

The Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge

One hundred and thirty seven teams of students, academics and engineers from around the world are taking part in the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge. Their task is to design low cost UAVs that can be deployed over the rugged terrain of Kruger National Park on South Africa’s north-eastern border with Mozambique. The South African drones ban could be a temporary one, as the SACAA has said that it needs time to consider how best to regulate UAVs in its airspace - in particular the safety and security implications.

Aliyah Pandolfi, CEO of the Kashmir World Foundation, set the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge in 2013, responding to President Obama’s Executive Order on combating wildlife trafficking. She says that it will be the drone’s ability to process data on-board that counts.

“Conservationists will want to know if there are poachers around, where they are located, what type of weapons they’re carrying, what’s their proximity to the animals and what’s the best route for a ranger top take to locate and stop the poachers,” she explains.

Technical drone designs

Gauradev Soin, an international student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and part of team AREND, explains that UAVs can be developed relatively cheaply as long as the engineers have the right skills and knowledge. The body of the UAV that Soin and his teammates are working on has advanced aerodynamics and a large lifting surface.

“This increases efficiency up to 30 percent, but decreases fuel burn and emissions,” Soin says. “The flat under spacing provides space for mounting the intelligent radars, navigation antennas, cameras and night vision sensors. These instruments can be effectively used for detecting poachers under cover in thick forested areas, day or night. Such an aircraft, combined with a hydro-electric engine would enable rangers to monitor large areas around national parks for prolonged periods.”

Team AREND’s drone holds select sensors in modular arrangements. The CruiseAders Guardian Angel drone uses a customised, open-source autopilot system to achieve vertical take-off and landing. It has on-board data processing and transmits live 1080P video during flight. The Aerial Vista uses the RVJET double fuselage airframe on the base platform. This aircraft’s greater volume creates space for multiple cameras, and its communications system provides users with simple controls and real-time information.

Team SRM’s SCRO drone takes a dual airframe approach. It’s a fix-wing UAV used for initial surveillance, followed by a multi-rotor UAV for fine threat detection. The drone identifies threats based on RFID sensor data, metal detectors and raw images.

Michael Balazas from MITRE’s National Security Engineering Center and part of Team Rhinoshield likes the idea of using smartphones with their built-in sensors -Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, their LTE communications, the camera and processing power.

“We’ve developed a 3D printed plane, the apps that run on the phone and the sensors,’ he says. ‘All that remains is to bring it altogether, put it up in the air and make sure it does what we hope it does.”

There’s work still to be done…

Rhinoshield, AREND and the other teams have until April to get their designs in.

“A challenge like this is a great way of motivating people,” Pandolfi says.

To follow the progress of the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge, visit

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