Drones Saving Herds of Elephants and Rhinos

It has been more than two decades since an international ban on the ivory trade, but elephants and rhinoceroses still die at the hands of poachers who participate in this horrible, illegal, and lucrative business.

In an effort to protect the herds, Air Shepherd, a team of scientists, conservationists, and drone operators in South Africa, have started keeping watch from above with drones. These unmanned aerial vehicles literally save lives.

Mobile Command Unit with Drone

The fleet of drones and their command unit vehicle. Credit: Air Shepherd

The Air Shepherd initiative, which operates in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, uses a whole fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with heat-sensing, thermal cameras.  The drones are provided and flown by South Africa-based UAV & Drone Solutions. With this technology, Air Shepherd tries to keep track of their four-legged friends and their two-legged enemies.

Should any poachers be found, the drones are able to point to their location so that park rangers can find and deal with the intruders before any harm comes to the animals.

One huge challenge for a tiny drone is being able to keep an eye over an entire preserve. To make the most efficient use of their flight time, Air Shepherd sends location data from previous encounters to the University of Maryland. There, super-computers and scientists use algorithms to predict where the herds might be and from where the poachers might come.

“This innovative combination of algorithms and aviation predicts where poaching is likely to happen with 93% accuracy, apprehending poachers before they can kill,” Air Shepherd spokeswoman Celia Black said. “Tested on private reserves in southern Africa for two years, in over 650 missions, no animals were killed while Air Shepherd drones were in flight.”

The pilot's view from inside the command vehicle. Credit: Air Shepherd

The pilot’s view from inside the command vehicle. Credit: Air Shepherd

On Mar. 19 the South African National Parks announced that it would be testing the drone technology for a year to evaluate its effectiveness. Officials are trialling the new drone program along with other innovative techniques to combat poaching.

This suite of new tactics comes at a time when poaching in Africa is looking grimmer than ever. “There is an alarming increase in animal poaching,” according to Black. “In the past year poachers killed nearly 40,000 elephants and over 1,200 rhinos. At this rate both will be extinct within 10 years.”

Two Shepherds launch a drone. Credit: Air Shepherd

Two pilots launch a drone. Credit: Air Shepherd

The Air Shepherd initiative, which was started by the Lindbergh Foundation, is looking for supporters to continue their efforts. They hope to raise $500,000 with their crowdfunding program.  The campaign started in February and will end Apr. 11. As of today, they have made almost $200,000.

Check out this video that Air Shepherd recently released. It details the program and shows some of their infrared footage.

UPDATE (Mar. 25) – The original language of the post did not mention that the drones were owned and operated by UAV & Drone Solutions. Edits have been made to clarify that the drones are not owned by Air Shepherd.

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