The World Wildlife Fund is turning to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in a bid to tackle an upsurge in illegal poaching of rhinos, elephants and tigers carried out by increasingly sophisticated and well-equipped cartels. The WWF provided two hand-launchable UAVs to the government of Nepal in 2012. In December, Google awarded the organization $5 million to develop more advanced UAV systems. It is hoped that these systems will reduce the poaching of endangered mammals and save the lives of the park rangers assigned to protect them. Ars spoke to WWF’s Crawford Allan to learn more the UAV system, dubbed SMART, that is now in development.
A recent rise in rhino poaching is thought to have been fueled by increasing demand in Vietnam, where, like China, rhino horn is prized—with little to no supporting evidence—as a medical treatment for a host of diseases and conditions including cancer (though not, as is sometimes assumed in the West, impotence).
Much of Vietnam’s rhino horn is supplied from South Africa, where rhino poaching is at an all-time high. A Reuters report from December of last year put its 2012 toll as of mid-December at 633, up from the previous record of 448 in 2011 and from a “mere handful” a decade ago. According to a release put out by South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Department, the count for 2013 is already 102.
Elephant poaching has followed a similar upward trajectory in recent years. It’s thought that African elephants are poached in tens of thousands annually to meet China’s appetite for ivory. If tiger poaching tends to deal in smaller numbers, this merely reflects that there are so few left. The WWF estimates that 3,200 remain in the wild.
Rhino horns and elephant tusks have an extremely high street value, typically in the tens of thousands of dollars. Such money buys serious equipment at the source of the supply chain. In Africa, poachers often bear automatic arms and high-tech equipment, including night vision, while rangers are equipped with rifles or carbines and run the risk of ambush or running headlong into a lion pride. “They’re outgunned right now—they need some rapid support,” Allan told Ars, adding that an average of one ranger is killed per week on the continent. The WWF is now turning to UAVs to level the technological playing field.
About a year ago, in a joint-program with conservationdrones.org, the WWF provided Nepalese authorities with two hobbyist FPV (first-person view) Raptor UAVs equipped with GPS and day-vision cameras to deter poaching of rhinos, elephants and tigers in the country’s national parks.
Getting SMART about poaching
With the grant money provided by Google over the course of three years, the WWF intends to expand its UAV operations, both technologically and geographically. To this end, the WWF is developing SMART—a marriage of UAVs, sensors, and software—which should allow authorities to tackle poaching more strategically and give confidence to the rangers themselves.
To do this, the system will simultaneously track the locations of rangers and law enforcement units, animals, and poachers. Of these, the rangers are the most straightforward, as they can be given GPS units. Animals are a little more challenging, requiring electronic tagging that can send historic and current geolocation information via GSM SMS. Tracking poachers requires UAV video surveillance streamed to operators on the ground. This will be advanced by the addition of night-vision cameras and, if the WWF can find the right technology, thermal imaging.
The data will be gathered and analyzed using a data management system at a control center on the ground, allowing rangers to be deployed where best placed to intercept or surround poachers before they reach their targets. The optimal configuration is yet to be settled upon and will require the balancing of cost, flight times, payload capability and communications, yet it’s clear that the WWF is breaking new ground.
Allan suggests that the countries the WWF partners with may provide their own UAVs. Along with Nepal, Namibia is potentially one of four countries, two in Africa and two in Asia, where the WWF could deploy SMART. According to Allan, the country already has a home-grown low-cost UAV potentially suitable for the scheme.
Still, the WWF is talking to UAV manufacturers, among others, to develop a working system. “We’ve been talking to dozens and dozens of UAV and sensor manufacturers,” Allan told Ars. “We’ve been deluged with contacts and interest by companies that are inspired by the idea of using aerial vehicles for a purpose that is strong, for public good, for conservation, and for saving wildlife.” Many, Allan reports, are offering their services for free.
The WWF itself will not operate the system on the ground. “We’re just a conservation organization, and we don’t run around with guns and arrest poachers,” Allan explains. Governments will run their own initiatives, with the WWF providing software and training, and potentially hardware if necessary.
Though the four sites are yet to be agreed upon, all will be in relatively clear terrain due to the obvious problems that a forest canopy poses to aerial surveillance. The first two sites will be away from intense poaching so operators can iron out technological kinks in relative safety. The second two sites will be poaching hotspots, however. Of these, South Africa’s Kruger Park is unlikely to be a candidate, as it has already implemented its own UAV system. “Those are more high-tech, military UAVs than we would want to use,” Allan explained. “We are looking for a much more low-cost system.”
For now, the question seems to be whether thermal imaging will make the cut. “Is there a sensor out there for thermal imaging that is lightweight enough, that is cost-effective enough for us to be able to truly determine, using thermal images, a heat signature that will give us enough resolution to say, ‘yes, that’s a person’ or ‘no, actually, that’s a rhino’?” Allan asks.
He is keen to stress that UAVs are not the only option when it comes to surveillance for conservation. Simple CCTV cameras on poles have been installed at the boundaries of India’s Jim Corbett National Park, and Allan also raises the possibility of tethered surveillance balloons equipped with 360° day- and night-vision cameras. The UAV is a means to an end, Allan explains. The end is proven, intelligently designed, low-cost surveillance systems that are easy for governments to adopt.