Kenyan poachers better keep an eye in the sky, because they have a new air-bound foe: drones.
California-based tech company Airware, which specializes in unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) development, teamed up with Kenyan wildlife officials to use drones to help guard rhinos from poachers. Three Airware engineers traveled to Africa in December, where they successfully tested the drone prototype over a two-week period and proved they can be used for wildlife conservation.
Fifty rhinos were killed due to poaching in Kenya in 2013, prompting the company to collaborate with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy for the field tests in northern Kenya, the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, Airware said in a statement.
Airware’s “Aerial Ranger” is designed specifically to “observe, track and protect wildlife” by using an autopilot platform and control software that delivers real-time thermal and video images to a ground team, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy said in a news release.
These features act not only as a surveillance tool for rangers to respond to illegal poaching activities quickly, but is also a deterrent, which both the Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Airware noted. Using drones to combat poaching will hopefully add an inherit fear of “being watched.”
“In the future, footage of an incident recorded from the drone may also be used to identify offending individuals, who often live nearby, and can be held up as evidence in court,” the Ol Pejeta Conservancy said. “The deterrent factor alone could have a significant impact on poaching incidents.”
Though the drones are state-of-the-art machines conducting highly sophisticated aerial missions, Airware assures the operators need only minimal training. Users interact with a “Google Earth-style map,” selecting an array of options from a point-and-click platform.
Check out some footage of Airware’s project:
The Ariel Ranger will also be utilized by Ol Pejeta’s Ecological Monitoring Department to conduct wildlife censuses at low costs, providing valuable data quickly and efficiently, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy said.
Airware reported the drone prototype was able to withstand the rugged terrain prevalent in Kenya, as well as “work effectively within the conservancy’s limited infrastructure.”
“It surpassed all of our expectations,” Airware CEO Jonathan Downey said in a statement. “We still have more development to do but we’re extremely encouraged and quite proud to be pioneering drones that can preserve some of our planet’s most threatened species.”
While drones have gained an infamous reputation over the past few years, Airware is proving they can be used for good, also.
“The commercial drone space is a major growth market with applications like precision agriculture, infrastructure inspection and search and rescue,” Downey said in a statement. “In addition to our work developing the next-generation autopilot platform, we’re working on a project that our team cares a lot about — building a drone for conservation.”
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy said there is some adjusting and development to do before the Aerial Ranger is a fully functional weapon in their arsenal against poaching, but “wildlife conservationists everywhere can prepare themselves for a revolution.”