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Airware’s Aerial Ranger: Anti-poaching Efforts Go Unmanned

The proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has seen them perform an ever-evolving set of missions. One of those missions, which is just starting to take root, is anti-poaching surveillance. One of the first to explore the potential anti-poaching applications of a UAV is the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya, home to East Africa’s largest black rhinoceros sanctuary, which has tested its first UAV, the Aerial Ranger, according to an Airware release.

Wildlife sanctuaries in Kenya have been particularly hard hit. The privately owned Ol Pejeta Conservancy saw 13 of its 50 rhinoceros lost to poachers in 2013.

The Airware Aerial Ranger is an enhanced capability in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy’s fight against poaching, which has grown into a worldwide problem. Wildlife sanctuaries in Kenya have been particularly hard hit. The privately owned Ol Pejeta Conservancy saw 13 of its 50 rhinoceros lost to poachers in 2013. According to an International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) 2013 report, “The Global Security Implications of the Illegal Wildlife Trade,” the value of rhino horn on the black market is at around $30,000 per pound. That value exceeds the price of gold and platinum. The illegal trade in wildlife is estimated to be a $19 billion a year industry.

Airware Aerial Ranger

The Aerial Ranger unmanned aerial vehicle will provide real-time video to rangers at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Airware photo

The poacher threat, and the lucrative black market that fuels it, has a global security component to it as well. According to the same IFAW report, poachers are increasingly using military grade weapons and working with terrorist organizations, such as al Shabaab and al Qaeda. To emphasize the seriousness of the treat, the Kenyan ambassador to the U.S., Elkanah Odembo, urged then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to provide help to Kenya in order to stop poaching. “KWS [Kenyan Wildlife Service] wants Marine-style training, which helps to build initiative, team spirit and cohesiveness, confidence and determination,” said Odembo at a 2012 U.S. State Department event, “Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation: A Call to Action.”

 

Enter the Aerial Ranger

The Aerial Ranger is capable of being used as both a deterrent and a surveillance tool. In the event of an incident, real-time digital video and thermal imaging can be fed to rangers on the ground through fixed and gimbal-mounted cameras.

The Aerial Ranger UAV is fairly unsophisticated, especially when compared to those in use by worldwide militaries, but it has the capabilities needed to help monitor the 90,000 acre preserve. Using Airware’s autopilot and control software, the Aerial Ranger is capable of being used as both a deterrent and a surveillance tool. In the event of an incident, real-time digital video and thermal imaging can be fed to rangers on the ground through fixed and gimbal-mounted cameras. Another advantage for the Ol Pejeta Conservancy is that the Aerial Ranger can be used to assist in wildlife census reports.

Airware Aerial Ranger

The Aerial Ranger unmanned aerial vehicle’s (UAV’s) thermal imaging allows the UAV to operate day or night over the 90,000 acre Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Airware photo

In December 2013, a three-man team from Airware deployed to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy for two weeks to conduct field tests of the prototype Aerial Ranger. The prototype was the result of a 12 month development phase. While at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the team tested the Aerial Ranger in a variety of scenarios, including flying the UAV beyond the line of sight and contingency plans in the event of a loss of communications. The team even encountered an unexpected real-world scenario. “Our team was testing flight out of line of sight when a lawn mower ran over a cord to our transmitter, causing us to lose communication with the aircraft. In the event of a loss of communication, the failsafe designed into our autopilot platform should return the drone home to land autonomously — which is exactly what happened,” said Brian Richman, Airware Flight Director.

“Our team was testing flight out of line of sight when a lawn mower ran over a cord to our transmitter, causing us to lose communication with the aircraft. In the event of a loss of communication, the failsafe designed into our autopilot platform should return the drone home to land autonomously — which is exactly what happened.”

One of the concerns often expressed about any effort to strengthen anti-poaching capabilities is that it often results in technology overload to militaries or organizations in developing countries, who lack the technological know-how. At the 2012 Air Force Association Air & Space Conference, Garry Reid, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations & Low-Intensity Conflict, emphasized that the solution to poaching is, “not as simple as providing a piece of kit and waving goodbye. How do we allow a small nation to have the advantage of these capabilities?”

Airware Aerial Ranger

The Aerial Ranger UAV is controlled by a ground station that utilizes a simple digital mapping interface. Airware photo

Airware answered those potential pitfalls by making the Aerial Ranger as simple to use as possible, especially important in the rugged terrain of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where infrastructure is limited. The ease of use also helps keep operating costs low, as the need to employ full-time pilots and engineers is eliminated. The simple digital mapping interface used by the Aerial Ranger allows the UAV to be operated via a ground station, even by an inexperienced operator. An operator simply clicks a waypoint on a Google Earth-style map and directs the UAV to either fly there or point its camera in that direction. “The Airware control system is outstanding. It is so easy when something like this works, to take it for granted. This over-delivered on my expectations in terms of both simplicity of use and sophistication of capabilities,” said Robert Breare, Commercial Director of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. A return home button allows the Aerial Ranger to head back to its launch point at the conclusion of a mission. The Aerial Ranger lands by deploying a parachute and floating back to the ground.

“The Airware control system is outstanding. It is so easy when something like this works, to take it for granted. This over-delivered on my expectations in terms of both simplicity of use and sophistication of capabilities.”

In the future, the Aerial Ranger team hopes use its footage to identify poachers and provide the evidence for use in prosecution. “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,” said Jonathan Downey, Airware’s CEO. Though more development is needed before the Aerial Ranger goes to work, the endangered black rhinoceros of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy may soon be watched over by a UAV.

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Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...