Supercomputer-Powered Drones Shut Down Rhino Poaching in This Park—Can They Save Africa’s Elephants Too?
Attention, rhino poachers: Skynet is watching you.
Drones deployed in South Africa’s Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park have eliminated the killing of endangered rhinoceroses over the past six months, according to Air Shepherd, the nonprofit program that operates the machines. It’s a stunning statistic, given that poachers had been shooting between 12 and 19 rhinos a month.
These aren’t just any drones. Guided by a supercomputer that predicts where poachers will appear, the flying robots show ranger teams where to apprehend the killers before they can pull the trigger. A ground crew equipped with a 3-D printer, meanwhile, keeps the drones aloft by making replacement parts for the machines on the fly.
“It works because we can see the animals and the poachers in the dark with our thermal imaging cameras, and we already know where they’re both going to be before they’re there,” said John Petersen, chairman of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Lindbergh Foundation, which runs Air Shepherd.
The drones offer new hope for saving Africa’s endangered elephants and rhinos, which are being massacred for their ivory and horns. In the last three years, poachers have killed 100,000 African elephants, and last year more than 1,200 rhinos were butchered in South Africa alone. Conservationists say both species face extinction within 20 years unless the slaughter stops.
Uploaded into each drone is a flight plan generated by an algorithm that can estimate with 93 percent accuracy where rhinos will be at any given time, as well as where and when poachers are most likely to strike.
It’s based on the same code used to predict where insurgents would place roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thomas Snitch, a University of Maryland computer science professor, developed the Air Shepherd algorithm and treats rhinos like American soldiers. Just as troops move along certain paths at certain times, so do rhinos, elephants, and poachers.
“The key is anticipating where the area of conflict will be,” Snitch told Sierra magazine last year. “Where will the two elements intersect?”
By linking historical data gathered from rhino radio collars, reported poaching attacks, time of day, weather, and season, the Air Shepherd team can intercept poachers before they have a chance to lay hands on a rhino.
So far, the drones have flown 760 missions over 1,000 hours without a poaching incident.
“It works because instead of trying to cover a thousand square miles of land, we’re pinpointing a two-square-mile area that we know could be a point where poachers and animals will be,” Petersen said.
With ranger patrols dominating the day, the team’s drones are the eyes of the night sky—nighttime is when the majority of big-animal poaching takes place. Each drone is outfitted with an infrared camera that pipes a live feed of what it’s seeing to the mobile ground team.
Back in Maryland, the supercomputer pumps out new flight plans based on the most recent available data. That information is uploaded to the drones, which then patrol on autopilot, surveying areas most likely to be targeted by poachers.
If a drone spots a poacher, the ground-control crew springs into action, alerting a prepositioned ranger team of the threat. The rangers are deployed and stop the poachers before they can harm the animals.
On the ground in South Africa, the program’s success can be traced to UAV Drone Solutions’ search for a flying machine that can withstand the abuse of multiple sustained flights in African wilderness.
“It’s hard enough to find a drone capable of handling the weight payload of surveillance equipment over long-distance flights yet agile enough to land in the African bush, and still be cheap enough that a crash doesn’t put the operation out of commission,” said Rob Hannaford, UAV & Drone Solutions technical director.
Hannaford has settled on an electric-powered drone with a two-hour flight range. They’re virtually silent, easy to launch and land in tight spaces, and low-tech enough that a broken wing doesn’t mean a broken budget. When on patrol, the team rotates through drones, recharging batteries and uploading information—but at least one drone remains airborne at all times.
“We’ve got a 3-D printer in the van that can actually build plane parts on the spot,” Hannaford said. “We can fix almost anything on these drones with that printer and a bit of epoxy glue.”
Petersen said Air Shepherd has received requests for assistance from seven African countries with poaching hot spots, including South Africa, Tanzania, and Namibia.
Right now, there’s only one team in the field, and its tricked-out, off-road van can only cover so much ground.
“We’d like to get about 45 to 50 of these teams assembled, to really put a dent in poaching across these seven countries,” Petersen said.
With an operating cost of around $500,000 a year for each team, that’s a big ask, but it’s one that could be a game changer in the $19 billion illegal wildlife trade.
Air Shepherd is trying to raise $500,000 on Indiegogo to keep the team in the field over the next year.
“We want to be able to duplicate the effectiveness that this one team has achieved,” Petersen said. “When people see what this program can do, it should be easy to get it funded.”
In the meantime, Hannaford isn’t wasting any time. His team is deployed along the border of Mozambique and South Africa’s Kruger National Park—where 672 rhinos were killed in 2014.
“We know there isn’t the silver bullet to curb poaching, but this is a highly effective tool in the chain of tools we can use,” Hannaford said. “When we go into an area, the poaching goes out.”