A team of engineers from Airware recently traveled to Kenya to conduct field tests of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed to protect rhinos from the threat of poachers. The successful tests demonstrated that drones can be a viable tool for wildlife conservation.
“The commercial drone space is a major growth market with applications like precision agriculture, infrastructure inspection and search and rescue,” said Airware CEO Jonathan Downey. “In addition to our work developing the next-generation autopilot platform, we’re working on a project that our team cares a lot about — building a drone for conservation.”
African wildlife is under constant threat. Kenya lost 50 rhinos in 2013 alone. Ol Pejeta is East Africa’s largest black rhino sanctuary and allocates the majority of its budget and personnel to protecting them and other at-risk species. Airware partnered with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy to demonstrate a drone specifically designed for conservation.
The drone, equipped with Airware’s autopilot platform and control software, acts as both a deterrent and a surveillance tool, sending real-time digital video and thermal imaging feeds of animals – and poachers – to rangers on the ground using both fixed and gimbal-mounted cameras.
In the event of an incident, the drone can help Ol Pejeta efficiently deploy a security team. And given its cost efficiencies relative to conventional aircraft, the technology will also make it possible for the conservancy to conduct wildlife censuses more frequently and at a fraction of the cost, providing more reliable data for managing its animal population.
Although the drone conducts sophisticated missions, it requires only minimal training. A ranger can easily configure a flight plan using a simple mapping interface and launch a flight that is autonomous from launch to recovery. As it collects images as well as real-time video, the ranger can tell the aircraft where to go and where to point the camera.
“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.
While at Ol Pejeta, Airware’s flight team tested multiple airframes including conventional fixed-wing and flying-wing. The team demonstrated bungee and wheeled launches, as well as parachute and wheeled landings. They also flew beyond line of sight testing both range of real-time digital video and contingency plans for loss of communications.
Brian Richman, Airware Flight Director, recalls a real-world situation that put our autopilot platform to the test. “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.”
Contingency plans for loss of communication are something the FAA is interested in as they develop U.S. regulations. Airware is providing feedback and expertise based on our operational experience to help the FAA as they develop rules and standards for how small UAVs will be operated in the national airspace.
Airware’s team was thrilled with the autopilot platform’s performance during its two weeks at Ol Pejeta. Not only did the prototype have to withstand Kenya’s rugged landscape, it had to work effectively within the conservancy’s limited infrastructure.
“It surpassed all of our expectations. 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 Downey.