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Here come the drones: How a Raglan company is assisting in the fight against rhino poachers

In the last ten years in South Africa, more than 7000 rhinos – which are considered critically endangered – have been poached. The magnificent animals are trafficked by poachers for their horns, where it’s common to use them as a status symbol to show wealth and success, or for their believed medicinal healing powers.

Some reports price the rhino horn at fetching prices as high as US$50,000 per kg, which makes it a very demand product. But if current poaching rates continue, Rhino Survival reports that the animal could be extinct as soon as the year 2025.

Enter a company halfway across the world: Aeronavics. The aerial robotics company is run out of the Waikato and was approached by fellow Raglan local Sarah Jones from the Tusk and Horn Wildlife Trust and asked if its technology could have anti-poaching applications.

Jones had spent time on a recent trip to South Africa with wildlife vet and rhino specialist Dr William Fowlds, who is famous for his work in rhino conservation and rehabilitation, and had seen how in one instance, he deployed a drone to help locate a rhino.

Fowlds explained that he thought drone technology could be incredibly useful for conservation work – in particular, if it provided night vision to support security teams in patrolling reserves. However, the drone he used didn’t have this high-tech capability, and resources were limited.

“When Sarah contacted us, we instantly wanted to help,” Bulk says. “Both Rob (Rob Brouwer, Aeronavics co-director) and I were deeply moved by her relay of what was going on in South Africa, and by the gruesome imagery she showed us of the unimaginable suffering inflicted on this magnificent species by humankind.”

Aeronavic’s Linda Bulk (left) and the Tusk and Horn Wildlife Trust’s Sarah Jones

It took Aeronavics 18 months to come up with the final model deployed in South Africa, working through a number of prototypes before settling on a drone that would do the job.

It has been dubbed ‘Rhino Bavi’ and is a quad-rotor model that can fly for about 45 minutes and withstand battering winds, which is an important feature for the part of South Africa it’s being flown in.

“Cheaper off the shelve drones are used already for situational awareness and image capturing. They are however not suitable for the night operations, long range or challenging weather conditions for which we designed the Rhino Bavi. This was the first drone we delivered and is still classified a prototype – we are looking to find ways to fund a larger scale roll out,” Bulk explains.

Most importantly, the drone can comfortably fly several kilometres away without losing contact with the radio and video controls, and has both a normal camera and thermal camera side-by-side. It can also be pre-programmed to fly autonomously to assist patrols.

Rhinos are picked up by the drone’s heat sensor vision

“The main objective was to build an aircraft with similar high-performance qualities as our regular production aircraft, but at a lower cost,” Bulk says.

“For a wide scale uptake of this technology for conservation efforts, the cost need to go down as there’s simply not a lot of resources available. Current low cost drone offerings on the market just aren’t capable enough for the tasks this drone needed to perform, so we stripped everything off that wasn’t really required and looked for some lower cost alternatives for some of the components.”

Rhino Bavi is now being used by an anti-poaching unit that’s been trained to use the technology by Aeronavics, and they will be providing the company with further feedback to improve the prototype model. Feedback so far has already been great, Bulk says.

“We experienced firsthand during our trials what an incredible advantage it offers. In the dark of the night, there’s suddenly a way to see everything from a bird’s eye perspective,” she says.  

Bulk also stresses that the Rhino Bavi also isn’t a one-drone-fixes-all solution to a complex, global problem.

“The anti-poaching unit we worked with on the reserve already has a rigorous security policy in place with continuous surveillance, and is therefore less prone to visits from poachers,” Bulk says.

“They put these measures in place after they had fallen victim to poaching activities some time ago. This comes at a cost though, and many reserves and certainly national parks do not have access to sufficient funds to protect their animals.

“So this one unit will not win the war, but if we can get the technology rolled out on a larger scale, I certainly believe it will contribute to fewer [poaching] incidents. It is part of an ecosystem of measures and cannot by itself be seen as a solution to the poaching crisis.”

Other Aeronavics drones are now being used for conservation purposes elsewhere in the world, such as for environmental research monitoring the Great Barrier Reef and the icebergs in Antarctica.

Bulk says monitoring at-risk environments like this is very meaningful work now that global warming is a key concern.

“Our technology development roadmap has a strong focus on environmental management and managing our ecological footprint, as this is becoming increasingly important,” Bulk says.  

“Precision agriculture is another focal point, as well as sustainable pest and weed control to minimise contamination of soil and waterways.”

 Going forward, Bulk says the major obstacles for Aeronavics are current Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules, which limits drones to be kept within the visual line-of-sight of its users, as well as the level of skill required for operating the drones.

As well as this, the company is also looking for development partners and investors that can help build the next phase of its drone technology infrastructure.

“We have found the energy sector and the agricultural community willing to invest (money and in-kind), with Callaghan Innovation being very supportive; we are now also talking with the government for further funding support.

“The opportunities to utilise this technology in New Zealand to provide valuable and timely critical data collection and analysis for environmental management are huge – we just need the right people to see what we see and take the next step with us.”

And as for the small-but-significant difference Aeronavics has been making with a global issue like poaching, Bulk says it’s incredibly rewarding work.

“It is such a privilege to be involved, even if it is in such a small way, and to meet the some of the amazing people in the field. There is much more to do before I feel we can claim to have made a difference, but it’s a start and the intention is there to keep momentum going.”

The Aeronavics team with the Amakhala team at the Amakhala Game Reserve

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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