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.


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.

Nanoparticle-detecting microlasers to be used to identify viruses

Microlasers that are able to detect minuscule individual nanoparticles may be able to be used to detect viruses.

Researchers from Washington University, St Louis, created the system, which is able to detect and individually count nanoparticles at sizes of 10 nanometers.

Nanoparticles can be between 1 and 100 nanometers in size – with a nanometer being the equivalent to one billionth of a meter.

They are now aiming to develop the technology to be able to detect particles that are smaller than nanoparticles, which includes viruses.

The technology will benefit a number of fields including electronics, acoustics and biomedical applications.


The team that worked on the microlasers created a Raman sensor in a silicon dioxide chip to find the individual particles.

Previously, to identify the nanoparticles they would have had have to include rare ions in the chip to provide optical gain for the laser.

Researcher Sahin Kaya Ozdemir, who worked on the project, said that when generating the Raman laser beam in the resonator it will split into two to and provide a reference for the other beam to sense the particle.

“Our new sensor differs from the earlier whispering gallery sensors in that it relies on Raman gain, which is inherent in silica, thereby eliminating the need for doping the microcavity with gain media, such as rare-earth ions or optical dyes, to boost detection capability.

“This new sensor retains the biocompatibility of silica and could find widespread use for sensing in biological media.”

“It doesn’t matter what kind of wavelength is used, once you have the Raman laser circulating inside and there is a molecule sitting on the circle, when the beam sees the particle it will scatter in all kinds of directions.”

“Initially you have a counterclockwise mode, then a clockwise mode, and by analyzing the characterization of the two split modes, we confirm the detection of nanoparticles.”


The work, which was led by Lan Yang from the university, works in a similar way to that of the whispering gallery in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

In this space, which is the inside of the building’s iconic dome, one person can hear a message that is spoken to the wall by another person on the other side.

Unidirectional microlasers were first demonstrated in 2010 by scientists at Harvard University.

Featured image courtesy of Jeff Keyzer. Inline image one courtesy of J. Zhu, B. Peng, S.K. Ozdemir and L. Yang, image two courtesy of Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.