Entering the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge

The world’s rhino population is being decimated by poachers. Could drones help solve the problem?


In Chinese medicine, rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold. It has no scientifically proven medical effect. Before it reaches local dealers it must first be extracted from Africa. This process starts with poachers out in the bush. Countries such as South Africa see hundreds of armed poachers enter their borders at night in pursuit of rhino.

Once the poachers have tracked and killed their rhino, they remove the valuable horn with a saw and make their getaway. The supply chain involved in smuggling the horn out of Africa often involves terrorist organisations.

The scale of rhino and elephant poaching has reached unprecedented levels. Earlier this year, US president Barack Obama issued an executive order about the trafficking of poached animal parts.

Efforts are being made at all levels to combat this problem. Educational efforts continue to try and address the problem at the very end of the supply chain. Checks are carried out at ports which frequently result in seizing rhino horn and ivory.

Tackling the very beginning of the supply chain are the rangers tirelessly running patrols. They are up against stealthy bushmen who can cover great distances, often at night, and who are usually armed.

One emerging technology that may be valuable to the rangers are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) — more commonly known as drones.

Drone technology has seen rapid progress recently. Smarter flight control systems, smaller cameras and improved energy density of batteries have all helped drone development to accelerate.

In order to connect the advances in drone technology with the poaching crisis, a competition has emerged called the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge. More than 100 teams from around the world have entered to try and develop a drone that will be useful to park rangers in South Africa’s national parks.

DroneWorld is putting forward one of those teams.

At the time of writing, the criteria for the competition are still under review. However, we have already started work on a prototype based on the information already available about the competition.

Our strategy is simple. Many of the required components for an anti-poaching drone have already been designed, manufactured and tested by experts. A winning entry is going to consist of carefully choosing the best components and then bringing them together with a little ingenuity.

Drones are complex systems with many potential failure points. Simplicity is going to be a key value for a successful entry.

There are two principal types of drone: fixed wing and rotary. Fixed wings drones are usually powered by a single motor making them simpler. The also have the possibility of using less power while gliding.

From the information available about wcUAVc, it sounds like a variety of sensors will be useful. This presents a few options: mount all sensors on a single drone, make the drone modular so that sensors can be switched or use multiple drones each carrying a different sensor. Switching sensors would affect the balance of the drone and testing or diagnosing any problems in the field would be tricky. Using multiple drones would make the costs much higher. A single drone can carrying multiple sensors is probably the best starting point.

Systems to be considered for the drone include a control system, autopilot, camera, night vision and an RFID reader. The input from each sensor needs to be recorded and transmitted back to the pilot if possible. The range of the antenna and power of the receivers is a key consideration.

The camera would ideally be high resolution. It should stream video to enable First Person View (FPV) flying. Adding a zoom lens and a couple of degrees of movement for panning would provide a big increase in flexibility.

The autopilot would be used for waypoint-following missions. A couple of extra features may be worth developing, if not available out of the box: circling round a given point, keeping the camera pointing at a given target and a failsafe return home mode if radio signal is lost or the batteries run low.

An active RFID reader would allow the tracking of rhino carrying tags. A software component may help to pinpoint their precise location. Flying at lower altitudes would make it easier to pick up RFID signals but would be less accurate and may disturb wildlife. Flying higher would make picking up RFID signals more difficult.

The airframe we are currently considering as our first choice is the Skywalker X8. It is a large, stable platform with plenty of payload capacity for the various systems mentioned. We are currently in the process of building and testing a prototype based on the X8.

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