Bird’s eye view: Fighting rhino poaching with low-cost drones

Park rangers trying to tackle illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking could soon have a new tool, in the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can cover large distances to detect and locate poachers.

At the start of November, UAVs designed by teams from around the world will be put to the test in South Africa in a bid to find the ultimate anti-poaching drone.

This will be the final step in the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge (wcUAVc), a competition that has been running since October 2013 to guide competing teams through the process of developing and constructing a cost-effective, robust drone to combat poaching.

The winning design will have a significant effect of the growing poaching problem in Kruger National Park, South Africa, where it will be used by park rangers to tackle the shocking levels of rhino poaching.

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While equipment does exist to fulfil this function, there is a pressing need for affordable UAVs with adequate sensing and communication technology to keep rangers informed.

Writing in The Futurist, wcUAVc founder Princess Aliyah Pandolfi explained the challenges with using existing drones to track poachers: “Kruger’s rangers had experimented with aircraft developed for other purposes, but affordable aircraft lacked the sensing, processing, and communications essential to the mission.”

The winning UAV should, however, resolve this issue. It will be able to be launched easily within the national park, withstand rugged terrain with several hours of operation time and detect poachers.

It will then use existing communication channels to alert park rangers, who can intervene before animals are hurt, before safely returning to its launch site for reuse.

All of this will need to be achieved for less than $3,000, meaning the competing teams face a significant challenge. However, existing systems will help; all rangers and visitors already carry RFID tags, making detection of unauthorised intruders significantly easier.

Kruger is home to a significant rhino population, but has seen a dramatic rise in poaching in recent years.

In 2000 only 7 rhinos died in South Africa, but by 2013 this had risen to 1004, with a similar number expected for 2014. There are fears that rhinos could die out completely by 2020 if nothing is done.

Rhinos are being poached for their horns, which are highly prized for use in medicine in China and Vietnam. As China’s middle class has grown over the past decade, it is believed that demand for such medicine has increased, prompting a rise in poaching.

“Perhaps in a few generations, the demand for rhino horn will decrease, but unless the poaching ends, the rhinos will be gone in just a few years,” said Pandolfi.


Delivery drones closer to reality with self monitoring quadcopters

With the prospect of delivery drones firmly on the horizon, the challenges of developing reliable quadcopters for such a service are being tackled.

One of the biggest issues is the variety of weather conditions that a drone might face when making a delivery. Currently sending out a drone in harsh weather would be a matter of hoping for the best, but researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believe they have developed a solution.

The team have created an algorithm that enables a drone to keep an eye on its own “health” while in flight and take action as necessary.

The drone can monitor its fuel levels, and watch out for damage to its propellers, cameras and sensors.  If a problem is found, the drone can take an alternative route that includes a charging station, or select another action to minimise potential damage.

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Such a self-monitoring system is key to the commercial viability of drone delivery, because it will help to ensure packages actually arrive at their intended destination.

“With something like package delivery, which needs to be done persistently over hours, you need to take into account the health of the system,” explained Ali-akbar Agha-mohammadi, an MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics postdoc.

The researchers tested the technology to determine if it could impact on the rate of delivery success, with impressive results.

“Interestingly, in our simulations, we found that, even in harsh environments, out of 100 drones, we only had a few failures,” said Agha-mohammadi.

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However, a typical delivery drone would be likely to make several stops at different addresses while out and about, creating potential issues that could hinder the success of deliveries.

To resolve this, the researchers also developed a route-planning system that will determine the most efficient path to take to conserve fuel and avoid potential danger spots.

This is determined by considering all the possible options, and determining potential risks from different environments.

“Imagine a huge tree of possibilities, and a large chunk of leaves collapses to one leaf, and you end up with maybe 10 leaves instead of a million leaves,”said  Agha-mohammadi.

“Then you can … let this run offline for say, half an hour, and map a large environment, and accurately predict the collision and failure probabilities on different routes.”

This could have a dramatic effect on the efficiency of drone deliveries, and could ultimately be very important to their success as a commercial offering.

There is much more to be done before drones can be used for delivery, however the research team, which is partly funded by Boeing, plans to progress to working with delivery packages, which would be affixed to drones using custom electromagnets.

“We believe in the near future, in a lab setting, we can show what we’re gaining with this framework by delivering as many packages as we can while preserving health,” said Agha-mohammadi.

“Not only the drone, but the package might be important, and if you fail, it could be a big loss.”

Perhaps before long we really will be able to receive Amazon deliveries by drone.