A 12-month project is due to begin in the coming weeks that will use unmanned air vehicles to stop poachers in South Africa from killing wild rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks.
The Air Shepherd project is part of the charitable Lindbergh Foundation, and has raised funds through crowd sourcing to deploy a team to South Africa that will predict where poachers will be, and use UAVs to track them before they kill the endangered animals.
It will use a fixed-wing aircraft with an endurance of some 1.5h developed by UAV and Drone Solutions for its testing, “but we’re talking to a number of manufacturers with significantly longer endurances”, John Petersen, chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation, says.
However, Petersen notes that endurance is not necessarily a determining factor in the mission’s effectiveness if the operators know where to fly the UAV, which is what Air Shepherd is aiming to do.
Reserves and parks where the animals live are large, and the likelihood of coming across poachers by chance is remote, Petersen says, so knowing where to fly is key.
The University of Maryland is involved in this aspect of the project, utilising experience it gained in developing methods and analysis to help the military in Afghanistan and Iraq determine where roadside bombs are placed to work out where poachers may be located, using historical and behavioural data, the weather and trends of the poachers.
Rangers will be pre-positioned to act on the encrypted information delivered by the UAV to the ground control station, to try and stop poachers before they prey on the animals.
A team typically consists of three aircraft and two operators, and within six months of operations, Air Shepherd hopes to have four teams operating in South Africa.
Poachers typically operate at night so as not to be seen, which Petersen says is where the benefits of operating a UAV with an infrared camera – in addition to a daytime electro-optical camera – comes in.
This will primarily be a night time operation, but some daytime work – including carrying out census work counting the animals – will be done.
“Until now there has been no effective way of operating at night against poachers,” Petersen notes.
Flying at some 500-1,000ft, the UAVs are “essentially invisible and silent at the altitude that you fly them”, he says, and elephants can even be herded using the UAVs.
The charity is also in discussions regarding potential work in the African countries of Zambia and Namibia.