Drones are catching Africa's poachers

October 19, 2016

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The following is an interview I conducted with John Petersen, chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation, at the InterDrone conference, September 15th.  We discussed poaching in Africa and how the Lindbergh Foundation is using drones to combat the growing problem.

Q: Poaching is not a new problem in Africa.  Why has it increased so dramatically?

A: Poaching is big business. A set of elephant tusks is now selling for about $150,000 in China. One rhino horn may bring $750,000 in Vietnam. This is not a mom and pop industry; there are organized criminal gangs coming down from Somalia and other North African countries that are funding poaching operations. They killed 40,000 elephants last year, 40,000 the year before, 30,000 the year before, and 25,000 the year before that. At the current rate, wild elephants will be extinct in nine years. It’s the same for rhinos. 

Q: What is the Lindbergh Foundation and how are you involved?

A: The Lindbergh Foundation was founded 50 years after Lindbergh’s flight, in 1977. It was composed of a group of his friends: Sir Edmond Hillary, General James H. Doolittle, astronaut Neil Armstrong and a bunch of friends who wanted to keep the legacy of Charles and Anne’s interest in using technology to balance the environment.

For 35 years we gave small research grants, mostly to university folks who were doing things that involved technology and the environment. Five years ago we repositioned the organization to operate within the aviation area. We did this because few people knew about Lindbergh and the environment, but everyone recognizes Lindbergh and aviation.

About three and a half years ago I was talking to a representative of Kenya Wildlife Service and he was telling me how their observation planes were getting shot at by poachers. One of the planes crashed and the pilot died. He said all the poaching was done at night but KWS couldn’t fly at night. Although they own the daytime, the poachers own the night, and that is when they kill. It occurred to me that little drones could be useful because they can fly at night. They also have infrared cameras that enable you to see things in darkness. So I ran around the country and visited a lot of the major drone manufacturers. I asked if their equipment could help us spot poachers. They said, “Sure, just bring us $2 million and you can use the same drones we sell to the military." 

Q: Did the $2 million cost fit within your budget?

A: No, it was a non-starter, so we kept poking around and we found there were some small seven-foot fixed wing drones being flown down in South Africa by a company called UAV Drone Solutions. They had been testing drones for two years before they got approval to fly in Kruger National Park. Their work acted as a deterrent and conclusively proved that drone flights stopped all poaching.

I started a project within the Lindbergh Foundation called Air Shepherd. The idea was to partner with UDS because of their extensive flight experience. UDS now has probably 6,000 hours of flying and 4,000 drone missions. Nobody in the world has more experience or has a better understanding how to prevent poaching using drones.

So what we do is provide the umbrella. We find the funding and build awareness. I talk at different events like here at InterDrone. Through this process we try to support and expand this project.

Q: Exactly how does a flight mission work?

A: We have mobile command posts that consist of vans and four-wheel vehicles that go out into the bush. Each vehicle has a 40-foot telescoping mask with an antenna on top. There are three operating positions inside the vehicle: one is the pilot, one the sensor operator, and the third is a ranger or policeman. We always work with a ranger or policeman so when we see something, we can radio back to other rangers and they can find the poachers.

On the flight side, two drones are launched with pongee cords and are automatically tracked by the command center. The pilot flies the drone and the sensor operator looks for poachers via images sent back from the drone cameras. We can operate up to 45 kilometers (28 miles) away from the command center at night. We were the first ones to get licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority in South Africa and that essentially means we were the first ones in the world. Our pilots are licensed commercial pilots and UDS is licensed as a commercial airline. 

Q: What equipment do you use?

A: Our equipment is all custom-built stuff that we designed and built ourselves. We started with quadcopters and found they did not have the range or endurance. Then we went to a fixed wing drone, but that didn’t work. Our third iteration worked. We could get about an hour and a half of flight time. We’re now on our fourth generation UAV and we can fly about four to four and a half hours on a single charge.


Q: What would the cost of one of these drones be?

A: A full up drone would cost about $10,000. This is really pretty sophisticated stuff. We have some gifted engineers in South Africa and they have put all the systems together. We manufacture some of our own gimbals and the command vehicle even has a 3D printer that can be used to build replacement parts if a drone crashes in the field.

Q: What type of cameras are you using?

A: We’re primarily using infrared but we’re moving into LiDAR and radar because there is some new small solid-state radar equipment. We’re also testing audio shot detection so if a poacher shoots somewhere we can get a vector on them.

Q: Where are you currently flying?

A: We’ve only been totally operational since December but we already have four teams flying in three countries. Two teams are flying in South Africa, one in Kruger Park and one in KwaZulu Natal, and one team each just started flying in Malawi and Zimbabwe. Weather permitting, we fly each night at around 400 feet altitude. 

Q: How much training is required to be part of the UDS team?

A: It takes about four months to train our people because it’s not just flying airplanes. Most of the work is interpreting and analyzing the data. By the way, we’re starting to move into pattern recognition and other analysis so we can analyze the video signal coming in so the operator doesn’t need to sit there for five hours every night just looking at a screen trying to figure out what is happening.

Q: Have you automated this process?

A: We’re working on it. The Lindbergh Foundation has a wonderful group of volunteers and I’ve got guys that are Big Data consultants and we’re working with a team at the University of Southern California. What we’re trying to do is get a database of historical information about the location of the killings. Then we couple that data with local geography, time of the year, time of the day, position of the sun, and where the water is. Then we fly in the daytime to find where the animals are. Once these data are combined and analyzed, we can predict the greatest threat areas.

Now we’re trying to work different types of operations where we do the multilayer missions. We fly a high fixed wing airplane, then when it automatically sees an anomaly it can flag it, and then we can send in a little multicomputer that can sit there and hang over the location of interest.

Q: I’m surprised that some of the data, specifically kill sites, is available.

A: That’s an interesting kind of problem. Let’s just say the data collection is erratic. As an example, one of the problems is a team goes out and finds a carcass and they say here’s where poachers killed an elephant. But many times they don’t provide information such as how long the carcass has been on the ground. We’re often missing the time element in the data that is collected. So were trying to go back and correlate the data.

I’d like to supplement data collection from our ground patrols with overhead imagery because these data could be made available for crowd-sourced analysis. In other words, you could identify an area of interest and send it out to a whole lot of people on the Internet and they could also look for carcasses. From here you start to identify patterns of poaching locations.

So what we have is an opportunity, if we can proliferate here and get enough teams flying that we can tamp down the poaching side. Then we can partner with people like WildAid and other organizations that are working to curtail the demand side.  

The Lindbergh Foundation has just started an Air Shepherd Indiegogo funding campaign and they welcome participation from Directions readers. If you need additional information you can reach John Petersen at jlp@johnlpetersen.com. 


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