Cape Town - South Africa has been introduced to a potential new weapon in its war against rampant rhino poaching: an unmanned drone similar to those used by the US military against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But unlike the military version that typically unleashes deadly fire on its target, this drone sends only images from its high-resolution cameras, and GPS positions, that can be used by a ground-based anti-poaching unit to home in on suspected poachers.
Last week, the makers of the Falcon drone – more correctly, the unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV – put the machine through its paces for an audience at the OIifants West conservancy that borders the Kruger National Park in Limpopo and that forms part of the unfenced Greater Kruger National Park.
Designer Chris Miser said that while the lightweight craft, weighing just 4.5kg, had not picked up any poachers during operational demonstrations in which it patrolled the western border of the park along the R40, it had recorded a possible poachers’ camp that would be investigated.
Miser is a former US Air Force captain who now operates a small company, Falcon-UAV, in Denver, Colorado, which can manufacture one of these custom-designed drones per week. The technology involved was “great” and allowed for very simple operation, he explained.
The drone was launched by catapult, could fly for between 60 and 90 minutes, and then landed by parachute or with a simple belly landing. It can carry a gimbaled EO (electro-optical, daytime) or thermal IR (infrared, day/night) camera.
“You can throw it in the back of your car and then assemble it without tools in 10 minutes from where you pull off. It flies on autopilot and you tell it where to go by GPS and by altitude, or you can fly it like a video game. Your job for 90 percent of the time is to watch the camera and to monitor the aircraft just 10 percent of the time.”
Each drone costs $20 000 (about R196 000), while its military equivalent would come in at “well over” $100 000 (about R980 000), he pointed out.
Miser works in conjunction with mathematician Dr Tom Snitch, a University of Maryland, US, professor who was recently named executive officer of the UN Wildlife Enforcement Monitoring Systems.
Snitch develops algorithms (mathematical models) based on a range of information to determine “hot spots” where launching UAVs will yield the best possible results in any given situation.
For example, his models have been used in Afghanistan and Iraq to help find those responsible for planting roadside bombs, and he’s responsible for satellite imagery sharing efforts between the US and countries in Asia and Africa to help save tigers and gorillas, using the “Geoeye” high-resolution satellite.
The Joburg-based Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) organised the visit of the US experts.
Kirsty Brebner, EWT’s rhino project manager, said Snitch had seen the potential for the use of UAVs in anti-rhino poaching operations and had contacted them. “We could also see the potential value and facilitated their visit, helping get them into the country and with logistics.”
The demonstration had been conducted at the Olifants West conservancy because EWT already had a partnership with them, she explained.
Will use of this drone help in the “rhino war”?
“Ja, very much so,” she replies. “We know there’s no silver bullet and that this won’t on its own solve the poaching problem, but it’s another tool in the toolbox. As another ‘eye in the sky’ there’s definitely potential to it and we can certainly see the value.” - Cape Argus