I’m very encouraged to hear that drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) have been deployed in the fight against rhino poachers in South Africa, with great success.
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.
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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.
I know the park well, having visited it several times. It’s indelibly associated with Dr. Ian Player, who died last year and about whom I wrote at the time. It’s one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories. To learn that poachers were undermining that is sickening, and to know that drones are helping to stop them in their tracks is great news. Congratulations to all concerned.