Drones patrolling the skies of South Africa's Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park have helped prevent the killing of endangered rhinos over the past six months, offering hope that the technology can help in the long-standing war against poachers.
The drones, managed by the nonprofit Air Shepherd, provide overwatch on areas that a supercomputer guides them to, based on where poachers are most likely to appear. If illegal hunters are detected, rangers are then deployed to the area to apprehend them before they can take down a rhino.
The technology used to detect the poachers is based on a code used to predict where insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan might place improvised explosives. Thomas Snitch, a University of Maryland computer science professor who developed the algorithm, said it allows drones to protect rhinos and elephants the same as they would soldiers.
The program predicts the best area to patrol by taking into account data from the rhinos' radio collars and where and when poaching typically occurs. The system is able to detect the location of a rhino with 93 percent accuracy.
"It works because instead of trying to cover a thousand square miles of land, we're pinpointing a two-square-mile area that we know could be a point where poachers and animals will be," said John Petersen, chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation, a nonprofit which runs Air Shepherd.
Drones offer a number of features that allow authorities to gain the upper hand on poachers. Thermal cameras on the drones can pick out targets in the dark that human eyes cannot, and the unmanned aircraft can cover ground without putting human life at risk.
The drones don't require a pilot, but operate automatically based on uploaded flight plans. They are virtually silent, easy to launch, and can land in the African bush without issue. They're also electric-powered and can fly for about two hours. The drones are maintained with parts constructed from a 3-D printer, and the aircraft are cheap enough that a crash won't sink the program's budget. So far, the drones have flown 760 missions and spent over 1,000 hours in the air.
With poaching crippling Africa's wildlife, the project offers a glimmer of hope that African can gain ground against poaching. In the last three years, poachers have killed 100,00 African elephants. Last year in South Africa, more than 1,200 rhinos were slaughtered. If poachers cannot be stopped, both species could be extinct within 20 years.
However, the drone's success rate is encouraging, considering that poachers typically kill between 12 and 19 rhinos a month in South Africa. The team has received requests from seven Africa countries to help protect rhinos, and Petersen hopes to soon assemble up to 50 drone squads across Africa.
The drones and their crew cost about $500,000 a year to operate, and the team is raising funds to keep the airborne protectors soaring for another year. Petersen says that in the battle against the $19 billion wildlife trade, the drones are small price to pay to ensure rhinos and elephants are around for the next generation.