I did discuss the falcon idea with some of the wardens I work with and the answer is that there are wild populations of raptors with well defined territory. A tame bird would be open to attack and could also disrupt the natural patterns. The bush is a very complex ecosystem with problems that make protecting it harder.
As a wildlife biologist and researcher, I am investigating the potential of UAV based technology since several years, and I’ve frequently been surprised by the “stubbornness” of approaches relying on thermal camera imagery within the hot climate of (sub-)tropical Africa.
First of all, I mostly appreciate the dedication of people writing on this blog to contribute to the conservation of nature. We definitely have to improve the methodologies and technologies and make them available (!!!) to the managers and rangers of protected areas.
I am currently working on a recently launched social-ecological research project investigating (among others) the efficiency of protected areas for biodiversity conservation, from the governance (social) as well as from the ecological perspective.
Being responsible for the ecological work package, I’ll finally have some funds and possibilities to take a closer look at how to effectively and sustainably integrate UAV technology in wildlife management in African protected areas.
I thereby focus on VTOL-capable airframes, and I’m happy realize that other projects follow the same approach. I see the advantages of such a system design not only in the potential to take-off and land on small open patches, but also in the high degree of procedural autonomy (relieve requirements of piloting skills, leading to a real TOOL for non-UAV-specialists) and the protection of the sensory equipment.
What we found so far regarding the technology and its application within the African context, is
a) the repeated failure of reliable use of imagery systems (mostly relying on thermal imagery) - I could add here a long list of (more or less failed) projects trying to detect mammals (incl. humans) -,
b) a general lack of proven protocols on operations involving UAV based data collection, and
c) the high systems costs which hinder the accessibility of the technology to a wider audience (conservation institutions, PA managers, etc).
Our idea is to investigate and develop a system which:
i) relies on imagery principles that ensure the object (in our case medium to large-sized mammals, as we focus on automatised wildlife monitoring) detection INDEPENDENT of environmental TEMPERATURE
ii) can operate highly autonomously
iii) is affordable to individual or pools of PA managers
iv) needs to be robust and easily maintained with simple tools
Although, I realize that the detection of poachers is a different story and might require a different way of thinking (as the behavior of poachers is different to the animal behavior), there are multiple similarities. E.g. operational protocols need to be reviewed and potentially revised in accordance to the flight performance of the UAVs, as these systems are somehow (still) limited in endurance and/or speed - let’s forget for the instant about the issue of legal constrains. I further had to realize that funds for projects related to the conservation of highly endangered flag-ship species is much more accessible and extensive, and costs are probably much less of a concern, but I also think that anti-poaching operations need to be available in a long term and a wide audience (i.e. not restricted to PAs with high reputation, tourism income, etc.) to have a sustainable effect.
As such, I have recently applied at the National Geographic Society for further funds to enlarge the scope of imagery sensors working with ALTERNATIVE features of light and vision, and I am impatiently waiting for their feedback.
As such, I am most interested in your proceedings and happy to discuss related issues with all UAV experts here.
I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments and comments. I’ll reply in more detail later but we took a ground up approach to build a UAV that is built to address the issues, many that you have correctly raised.
Our current air-frame was designed in conjuction with an old school, aerodynamicist. Working with him was an eye opener and an absolute pleasure. From the beginning he made it very clear that you start with the maths and then you use all the fancy simulations to confirm the maths.
The starting point is what do you want to the UAV to be able to do. Must it fly fast or must if be able to fly slow or does it need to be able to do both? If it needs to do both then efficiency is an issue. If you want high efficiency, choose one of the two options. What is the maximum takeoff weight? If it is a slow flyer and it exceeds the designed takeoff weight then you throw efficiency out the window.
Do you need it to have VTOL capabilities? If its VTOL you have to design it around efficiency because efficient lift motors are not necessarily efficient when flying horizontally.
We spent a long time going through all the requirements, making hard decisions and eventually we decided on a slow flyer that is highly efficient, has VTOL capabilities and has a takeoff weight of 15kg.
Cameras alone are not going to work as they are implemented now and we are looking at new ways to use camera system technologies by combining them. We are also looking to combine cameras with other sensory technologies.
Your 4 points are all factors that were taken into consideration right from the start, especially affordability and maintenance.
Our idea is to fund raise the builds of these UAVs so that its not only wealthy private reserves that can afford them.
Are you guys aware of aerotenna? They had made a splash in the news a while back but no idea what happened since. They seem to develop radar hardware for UAVs, as well as a cool looking, Ardupilot capable board. It could be that their radar sensors might be of some help.
If anyone does use their stuff, could you please tell us how they perform? I, for one, am very curious about them.
Thanks, we did come across their units but their radar will not be able to detect a human. What we have found is that the Sony Stravis sensors with 4.6 million ISO (stealth marketing at its best) are potentially able to provide clear colour video (similar to the x27 Osprey from SPI) at night with only starlight illumination. We have a unit on the way to us to to start testing. If this works the combination of this camera with Thermal will mean a huge jump forward for us.
Hi Robert. Would you mind sending me an email ? Would like to chat offline.
I have been a little quite lately because we hit a minor speed bump being that our front motor placement induced significant torsion stress on the inner wing structure. To overcome this we designed a totally new wing structure that pushed Solidworks to its limited and chewed up over 2000 hours of computational time. I am happy to say that the test section of the new core drastically surpassed our expectations not only in lightness but also in strength.
The good news is that we can potentially lighten the core even more than we first thought.
This is the core segment without its carbon skin.
Thanks for posting the pic. Was your section printed with PLA? What are the dimensions and weight of that section (hard to tell from the pic)? Why are you covering w carbon and not just 3mm packing tape? I assume you’ve seen this fabrication technique here https://www.3dprintedrcplanes.com/kodo/? He uses a cf spar.
The wing section was printed SLS using nylon 6 but the final wing will be printed SLS using Carbonmide. The full wing is 3.3m and the section above says we are on track for a weight of 2.9kg. The wing has to lift a 15kg UAV with a significant torsion force from the front rotors so the carbon skin was designed to add additional stiffness and structural integrity. What you can’t see in the picture is the capped sine-wave spar.
It’s been a while since the last updated but we are still moving forward. All of the CAD work and simulations are complete and we are a week away from the first flight trials of the halfscale airframe.
Hi, how much does the scale prototype weigh?
1.5kg with servos, receiver and batteries. It is pretty much a solid foam constriction
Is it a glass-reinforced foam construction?
Polyurethane with carbon wing spars and a carbon tail boom. The air-frame is then coated with epoxy resin and re-enforced with fiber tape where necessary.
First flight test, a gliding test to check for anomalies and refine CG was today and was an incredible success. The UAV just seems to want to jump into the air and while we have work to do on the control surfaces it is an absolute pleasure to fly. The team is ecstatic with the result, even more so given that this went straight from computer to flight with no testing. All simulations were done in Solidworks CFD and they were pretty much spot on. Our Aerodynamicist Dr Becker van Niekerk got the wing design Spot on.
Video from the flight is here
Congratulations! I’m following this project with interest. Keep going!
Same here. Can’t wait to see how it performs in the field, I really hope it helps you guys.
Thanks, we are making good progress with the 60% scale and hope to have this deployed ASAP to start gathering data to assist with the build of the full scale version
Hey Robert, this looks very promising, and good weight. Did you go for the 3D-printed wing structure for this prototype? Did you use vacuum lamination technique or “just” hand-laminating and free-air curement?