Air Shepherd drones keep a watchful eye over endangered species

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Air Shepherd's system uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with infrared cameras and GPS to put poachers in its sights (Photo: Air Shepherd)

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For under-resourced park rangers patrolling the porous, poacher-friendly borders of Africa's national parks, conserving the ailing rhino and elephant populations is certainly a tall order. With tusks and horns only yielding more and more cash on black markets all across Asia, poaching numbers are on the rise and the future of local species hangs in the balance. But equipped with drones, big data and high-tech infrared cameras, one organization says it has the capabilities to start stemming the tide.

Dubbed Air Shepherd, the initiative is backed by the Lindbergh Foundation, a not-for-profit that aims to preserve the environment through the use of technology. It launched the project in response to illegal poaching problem in southern Africa, a crisis it says saw 40,000 elephants and 1,200 rhino killed in a single year. The group estimates that the current rate of hunting will see both become extinct within 10 years.

Air Shepherd's answer? Use flying robots to beef up the patrol teams. It has carried out a pilot phase in southern Africa over the last two years, which saw more than 400 missions and logged 1,000 hours of flying time over a region where as many as 19 rhinos were normally poached each month. It says during its testing period over six months, not a single rhino was killed.

Air Shepherd's system uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with infrared cameras and GPS. These are designed to tackle after dark-poaching between the hours of 6:30 and 8:30 pm, a period which sees the poachers make their move after surveying animal positions during daylight. Once the curtain of darkness is lowered, the hunters move in and kill the animals, quickly making off with their horns and tusks.

The engine room of Air Shepherd's solution is actually nowhere near Africa. Rather, it is housed at the University of Maryland in the US, where a supercomputer processes historical data about the location, such as poaching locations and times and where the poachers are entering and exiting the park. Taking into account where the elephants and rhinos are traveling and maps of the terrain, the software predicts the routes that the poachers will use to hunt their prey and dictates the flight paths of the drones accordingly.

On the ground, rangers are positioned according to the calculations of the predictive analysis software and in the areas most susceptible to a breach. The drones are flown for the entirety of the two hour window, autonomously following the planned flight path and only moving off-route if there is cause for concern. All the while, thermal images captured by the drones are relayed back to a control system on the ground. In the event that poachers are detected, the drone operators notify the rangers by radio who move in to make the interception.

Air Shepherd isn't alone in realizing the potential of aerial drones to curtail illegal hunting. Last year we saw the emergence of two ventures, the AREND project and another backed by California-based drone company Airware, both aimed at protecting Africa's endangered species. Meanwhile, in Belize drones are taking flight over the Caribbean to hunt down illegal fisherman in a similar fashion. But Air Shepherd says it is breaking new ground in this area, not by the vehicles they use, but the supercomputers that drive them.

"It's not just that we fly drones, it's that we know exactly where to fly the drones," Celia Black, Air Shepherd's rep explains to Gizmag. "It is this combination of big-data and drones that makes the difference."

The Maryland mathematicians who designed the software are the same brains behind a system used by the US military to predict where roadside bombs would likely be placed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They've now adapted the technology to counter poaching, amounting to a solution that Air Shepherd says serves as "demonstrable proof" that the program can work. More specifically, it claims it can predict where poaching is likely to happen with 93 percent accuracy.

Whether these different initiatives come together to form a ruthless anti-poaching task force, or a single approach wins out over the others, more parties getting more eyes in the sky over these endangered species can only be a good thing. Air Shepherd says seven African countries have inquired about developing anti-poaching programs, but to do so would require significant funds. It has taken to Indiegogo to raise US$500,000, an amount it says would fund the daily operation of a single drone team in South Africa for one year.

If you'd like to get behind the project, rewards range from $35 African Fair Trade Napkins to a $25,000 aerobatic flying adventure with professional pilot Sean Tucker.

You can check out the campaign pitch video below.

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