Innovation – Invention – Intervention
The Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge is to design low cost UAVs that can be deployed over the rugged terrain of Kruger, equipped with sensors able to detect and locate poachers, and communications able to relay accurate and timely intelligence to Park Rangers. UAVs that governments use in warfare might provide some of these capabilities, but Kruger does not have the runways, crews, maintenance facilities, and billions of dollars needed for such operations. The Challenge is to design aircraft that can be launched in the bush, operate for hours over the rugged terrain, detect and locate poachers, communicate over existing commercial infrastructures, and recover in the bush — all for under $3,000.

The Challenge is created to stimulate innovation among bright people from around the globe to take on some of the world’s biggest problems. The objectives seem daunting to governments and large corporations, but they are in reach to students, hobbyists, innovators and many more due to revolutions in additive manufacturing and smart phone technologies. Makers use 3D printers to fabricate aircraft structures out of inexpensive polymers. They automate aircraft with inexpensive computers made from smart phone components, and they stream video and other data from the aircraft using TCP/IP protocols over 4G networks at very low cost. What they need is a Challenge to focus their efforts and a success to inspire their next endeavors. With the help of Makers around the world we can stop the poaching and save the rhinos. Then we can proceed to the next problem.

During 16-21 November, Princess Aliyah led the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) to Kruger National Park organized by Scott “LB” Williams. Included in the mission were Casper van Zyl of Global Unmanned Systems, Larry Wirsing & John Glezellis of Aurora Flight Sciences and Justin Leto of Nova Labs. We were able to take members of the wcUAVc Leadership Team deep into the battlefield during the full moon phase when the battle is most intense.

Hosted by Major General (Ret.) Johan Jooste, Commander Special Projects SANParks, the Team received a morning briefing on the battle plan, then provided a short demonstration of Skate, a small UAV developed by Aurora Flight Sciences in Manassas, VA, reconfigured to help rangers more effectively engage poachers. Within minutes the Aurora Team began training Park rangers how to launch, operate, and recover Skate. Impressed with the simplicity of operation and quality of data, General Jooste requested that we bring Skate into the battle. Several days and nights the Team traveled into remote regions of the Park and introduced UAVs for the first time into the battle.

From a remote army camp on a hill near the border of Mozambique, Skate dove into a ravine, providing the first imagery every of this high risk area. From a Sector camp deep in the Park, Skate swooped low to provide imagery under a bridge where poachers pass during the night. The Mission provided new insight into the battleground and how UAVs might be integrated into the operational plans.

I have asked the Technology Assisted Counter Poaching (TACP) network to review results from the Fact Finding Mission, and I would much appreciate a review by the Challenge Teams as well. Please review the following with respect to potential changes to the rules, regulations, and evaluation criteria for the final competition.

One of the most significant changes likely will be splitting the Challenge into two classes of aircraft, one for field portable applications and one for sector-based applications.

​Ranger Post. As dusk approaches, rangers take up positions on high ground throughout sector. With rifle, binoculars, and radio, the rangers begin looking for poachers operating in the sector. They stay in their designated locations to minimize the possibility of confusing rangers for poachers. Off we went with a ranger to his post. Standing on a large rock, the ranger began to carefully scan the bush. If a ranger spots poachers, he reports in to the sector, providing a best estimate of the location, bearing, and number of poachers. The sector can then plan an engagement, often involving specially trained helicopter borne rangers or an ambush along one of the many dirt roads throughout the Park. Unfortunately terrain masking. Before the sunset, we launched Skate equipped with night vision sensor. The aircraft had little problem with winds that evening, but winds can be troublesome throughout Kruger with 20 – 30 knots common a few hundred feet above ground level. ​

Kruger National Park, South Africa

The next day, 24 year veteran Ranger with 15 minutes of Skate training had an opportunity to fly. After climbing to altitude, the Ranger guided Skate to a bridge, under which poachers sometimes would hide during the day. In less then five minutes, Skate accomplished what would have taken a ranger over an hour. Then the Ranger began searching his area with Skate. Kruger can be extremely hot during the day, often much hotter than mammals, but as the sun sets, the temperature blur with rocks remaining hotter and ground becoming cooler, so distinguishing animals a people against the complex background can be challenging with a single thermal sensor. The ranger identified Skate as his most valuable asset, but the challenge aircraft could be a perfect companion with much more capabilities.

​Army Camp. We arrived at a small South African Army camp hidden in the bush on the side of a mountain overlooking the border with Mozambique. There were about half dozen men and women in uniform monitoring a critical area of the border. They had binoculars, rifles, and food for about two weeks in the bush. The Army works in collaboration with Rangers to counter poaching, with the Army engaging at the border. As the sun begins to set, poachers cross over from Mozambique, often in groups of 20 to 50 men and then split into 3-5 poachers throughout the rhino areas. From their camps, the Army can observe poachers crossing the river and entering South Africa, but the poachers can take advantage of the terrain to quickly disappear into the bush. When the Army engages, one or more of the poachers run. The poachers are fast and excellent bushmen, able to cover about 30 km during the night. With the Army pursuing a few men, the rest are free to proceed quietly into the Park. Before the sunset, we launched Skate equipped with a small, digitally stabilized camera. The aircraft struggled a bit with the high winds on the mountain, typically 20 – 30 knots, then dove down towards the border. Dozens of men were crossing the river into South Africa. The on-board sensors were not able to distinguish between smugglers and poachers. Smugglers most likely were carrying baskets of goods such as unregistered cigarettes. Poachers would have been carrying weapons. The Army unit huddled around the display as the aircraft followed a group of poachers along a route that is shielded from observation by the terrain. This was the first time the Army had seen these often used routes.

The sun was setting, sunlight illumination was minimal and shadows were everywhere. Soon only the full moon would illuminate the bush. Under these conditions, the daylight camera was not very effective. Once in the bush, the poachers split up into groups of about 3-5 men. One carries an AK-47 assault rifles to shoot rangers. One man carries a high caliber rifle to shoot rhinos. And one man carries an ax to hack off the horn. Skate could follow a runner, but the field of view was not sufficient to follow the entire group. As the Army pursues the runners, the rest of the poachers continue into the Park. Field Portable Aircraft Requirements. There is an urgent need for field portable aircraft in Kruger to support army camps and ranger posts.

The aircraft needs to be easy to launch, operate, and recover in winds up to 30 knots with an endurance of about 1 hour and a communications range of 5 – 7 kilometers. They also need quick-change batteries and solar charging units to extend operations throughout the night and over several days. They need to be able to operate under full robotic control, receiving commands for changes in position or waypoints during operation. Sensors need to be able to spot people, determine if they are poachers, and maintain track in the bush during daylight, sunset, and full night conditions.

​Sector Aircraft Requirements. Our experiences working with rangers identified the need for a larger, more capable aircraft to patrol over the border regions and throughout high risk sectors on a nightly basis. Security in Kruger is divided up into 23 sectors, not all of which have rhinos. Sector bases have electrical power, radio links and commercial cellular phone coverage. Near the border with Mozambique, security sectors are also controlled by the South African Army. The aircraft need to be runway independent, but launchers, nets and other devices to assist with launch and recovery are acceptable. The aircraft need to be able to operate in high winds, up to 40 knots, with enough speed to respond to any call for support from within a sector in just minutes. They need to be able to patrol throughout the night with an endurance of 3 to 10 hours. They need to be able to collect RFID tag data throughout the sector; detect, classify, and tack all humans; regularly report on the location of all rhinos and humans; and receive commands to divert from general surveillance to support poacher engagement anywhere in the sector. They also need to be able to safely operate in same air space with manned helicopters, assisting special helicopter borne rangers engage poachers.