Sound­ings Drones save ele­phants

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - MARK BE­TAN­COURT

BI­OL­O­GISTS PRE­DICT that within 10 years, rhi­nos and ele­phants could be ex­tinct in the African wild be­cause of poach­ing. Wildlife rangers pa­trolling mil­lions of acres of land are mostly help­less to stop the mas­sacre; poach­ers kill in the dark of night, re­move the parts they want, and dis­ap­pear, all within min­utes.

But a new sys­tem could put an end to poach­ing. An or­ga­ni­za­tion called Air Shep­herd has teamed up with data re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Mary­land with plans to lay a blan­ket of smart air sur­veil­lance over Africa’s most vul­ner­a­ble wildlife parks. Small, bat­tery-pow­ered UAVS are much more mo­bile than park rangers and vir­tu­ally silent, mak­ing them ideal for spot­ting poach­ers who think they’re alone in the bush. But while a drone can find poach­ers any­where, that’s help­ful only if rangers have al­ready been po­si­tioned nearby to stop them.

Tom Snitch, a pro­fes­sor at the univer­sity’s In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Com­puter Stud­ies, spent sev­eral years work­ing with the U.S. mil­i­tary in Iraq to re­duce ca­su­al­ties from road­side bombs. His team used satel­lite imagery and a com­puter al­go­rithm to model where bombs were likely to be placed, then used drone sur­veil­lance to find and track the bombers them­selves. In Africa, Snitch’s new al­go­rithm fac­tors in the move­ments of an­i­mals within a park, the lo­ca­tions of wa­ter holes, the daily weather, even the dis­tri­bu­tion of rhi­nos’ fa­vorite cac­tus snack, then adds the lo­ca­tions of re­cent poach­ings; the re­sult is a flight pat­tern for the drone.

Fly­ing on au­topi­lot and us­ing an in­frared cam­era

to see at night, the drone pa­trols the likely poach­ing zones and sends live video to a com­mand ve­hi­cle. If the drone spots any­thing un­usual, rangers are dis­patched to ap­pre­hend any­one who doesn’t have per­mis­sion to be in the area. The pos­si­ble poach­ers are turned over to au­thor­i­ties.

Air Shep­herd ran pi­lot pro­grams in pri­vate parks around South Africa, where rhi­nos were be­ing killed at a rate of 12 to 18 ev­ery month per park. In the six months Air Shep­herd pa­trolled, that num­ber dropped to zero, and more than two dozen poach­ers were ar­rested.

Snitch says the sys­tem works not just be­cause it in­ter­cepts poach­ers in the field, but also be­cause the pa­trolling drones dis­cour­age poach­ers from hunt­ing at all. The Univer­sity of Mary­land team does demon­stra­tions in nearby vil­lages, where poach­ers come from. They launch the drone from a re­mote lo­ca­tion and fly it to a vil­lage, while the lo­cals watch its video feed on screens mounted on a ve­hi­cle. When they see a video of a group of peo­ple stand­ing around a truck, it doesn’t mean much—un­til the op­er­a­tor asks the guy in the blue shirt to wave. When he does, that makes an im­pres­sion.

Snitch points out that, de­spite their rep­u­ta­tion as archvil­lains, poach­ers aren’t ter­ri­bly re­source­ful crim­i­nals. “These are guys who know a lo­cal area,” he says. “They’re prob­a­bly farm­ers dur­ing the day.” And once they know they’re be­ing watched by an in­vis­i­ble op­po­nent, the pay­off from poach­ing doesn’t seem worth it.

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