Defining the Future of Drones in Conservation

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Date: 
14 January 2014

Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Airware Test the Aerial RangerTM in Kenya

From surveying oil pipelines, to searching for missing persons, to an online retail giant announcing an unconventional new delivery system - the drone is being demilitarized and is finding employment in more overt sectors. There are countless everyday challenges that could be more easily solved with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

One such everyday challenge for conservationists in Africa is the rapid depletion of endangered species populations. Kenya has lost 50 rhino to poachers in 2013 alone. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya is East Africa’s largest black rhino sanctuary, and spends the majority of its budget and human resources trying to protect rhino and other at-risk species. So wildlife experts from the Kenya Wildlife Service and Ol Pejeta have teamed up with Airware, makers of the leading platform for commercial drone development to pioneer the future of multi-role UAV’s in support of wildlife conservation.

For two weeks in December, a dedicated three-man team from Airware in the United States travelled to Kenya to carry out a series of intensive, in-the-field tests of a prototype. 12 months in the making, the Aerial RangerTM is being molded specifically to observe, track and protect wildlife. Equipped with Airware’s autopilot platform and control software, it has the capacity to deliver real time video and thermal imaging feeds to a team on the ground. This means that day or night, the Aerial RangerTM will be able to respond to poaching incidents in the field, sending live footage back to rangers who can help deploy resources in the most efficient way possible. 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 deterrent factor alone could have a significant impact on poaching incidents.

But the Aerial RangerTM is about far more than just catching the bad guys. It will be able to make huge contributions to Ol Pejeta’s Ecological Monitoring Department. The Conservancy conducts a wildlife census across its vast land area just once a year. To do this, it has to engage around 13 hours of light aircraft time at 220 USD an hour. Not only that, but the data collected is subject to a large degree of human error as counting has to be done in real time and with wide transects. The Aerial RangerTM could do all this in a day, at minimal cost, recording footage that can be watched several times over and carefully analysed. Censuses could be conducted monthly, providing experts with valuable and more reliable data about the Laikipia ecosystem.

Aerial Ranger on Ol Pejeta Thermal imagery on Ol Pejeta
The very simple digital mapping interface developed by Airware means that even a technophobe with no pilot training should be able to control the drone from the ground station
The thermal imaging captures an elephant roaming the Conservancy in "real time"

 

To avoid the need for Ol Pejeta to employ full time pilots and engineers, Airware has developed a simple digital mapping interface, meaning that even a technophobe with no pilot training should be able to control the drone from the ground station. They simply click a spot on a ‘Google Earth’ style map, and select the ‘fly here’ or ‘point camera here’ option. In the same menu is a ‘return home’ button, which, when clicked, will send the drone back to its launch point without any further instruction. When it has reached its landing spot, it deploys its parachute and floats elegantly to the ground. The beautiful simplicity of the operating system, coupled with sophisticated mission capabilities, was a high priority for both the Ol Pejeta and the Airware teams, and a real triumph.

While the Aerial RangerTM surpassed all expectations during its two-week African safari, there is still some way to go before it makes a regular appearance in the skies of Ol Pejeta.  Ol Pejeta and Airware are committed to making the Aerial Ranger effective and long lasting, a challenge easier said than done as many testing UAVs in the field have learnt.  While the sensors are tweaked, the screws tightened and the wires adjusted, wildlife conservationists everywhere can prepare themselves for a revolution.

Aerial Ranger Aerial Ranger on Ol Pejeta
The control center on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy
The Kenya Wildlife Service team is given a demonstration of how the Aerial Ranger works

 

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