For now we are using Li-Ion 21700 packs but we are looking at both Hybrid and Hydrogen options.
Looks good.Wing span?
The wingspan of this aircraft is 4 meters. It is easy to operate, easy to integrate, and has good speed, endurance, payload mass, and range parameters. I prefer wing in body design, but these proved too difficult for others (field biologists and rangers) to operate.
4m is something that doesnt`t necessarily go hand in hand with practicality
There is a trade between ease of launch/recovery and range/endurance. An autonomous anti poaching drone is by definition a long range/endurance aircraft. A 4 meter aircraft is off the ground in 20 feet of runway and recoverable in 40 feet of runway. That certainly is more difficult than a hand toss or VTOL, but it comes with 4 hours in the air at ~30m/s. cruise. The Albatross by Applied Aeronautics is a smaller plane with a wingspan of 3 meters. It is a bit easier to transport, but with much less payload and range/endurance. The Penguin B by UAV Factory has more payload, but also with much less range/endurance.
There is always a trade-off, we spent a lit of time looking at landing and recovery and opted for VTOL because we just don’t have suitable areas for autonomous runway landing and takeoff. Also the density of the vegetation means that wingspan is a big consideration because you have to cut and maintain clearings for VTOL. We opted for for a maximum wing span of 3m and an optimised flying speed of between 45-60kph. We traded faster flying speed for giving an AI more time to recognise targets in difficult scenarios. We also optimised the design for endurance.
I spent 2 years flying anti-poaching drones in the Kruger National Park and other reserves, clocking up hundreds of hours and Robert is right, everything is a trade-off unfortunately. And that’s only the start, there are so many difficulties in the actual operation, very few people have even the slightest idea of what it entails.
The design and building is really the easy part. So if that is hard then one is going to have a hell of a struggle on-site in the bush in 39°C heat (and that’s at 11pm at night!) not counting all the other challenges.
From my experience I believe, that even with the best intentions and best technology, drones will never have more than a negligible effect on poaching. To put it in context, the Canine teams in the KNP’s best haul was 18 poachers apprehended in one week. Our drone team saw less than 8 poachers in TWO years of night flying, with not one apprehension. So if the drone is not CATCHING an average of 2-5 poachers a WEEK then it’s of no use. And note that poachers get around deterrents easily.
Onsite drone launch with a large obstacle in the landing area:
It looks like you have been conducting missions on a search
radius of around 10km.
To judge the effectiveness of the missions, how many poaching incidents
were ‘missed’ by the UAV on the nights the missions were flown?
Eric, we flew at usually 300ft AGL following mostly fences, rivers and borders up to 30km from base, as randomly trying to search the 82,000 HA+ (202,000 acres) of that one section was impractical and a waste of time.
Poachers tracks (spoor) were found daily at the fences (41km thereof) and daily at random places in the 82,000Ha (202,000 acres) section adjacent to the fence. Some of the many, many carcasses were found up to 30km from the fence indicating that the poachers had entered undetected and unseen on 99% of nights, had spent a few days in that section and then exited again undetected and unseen (except for their spoor).
Note that an yearly average of 3 carcasses of poached rhino’s were found per DAY in that park!
This below is the first few lines of one poaching report which is 1278 lines long (i.e.1278 incidents!)
(Read the last line carefully!)
So the big question is why did we not see any poachers? WHY, when they crossed the fence daily?
And if you consider the possible reasons why (some of which I’ve outlined earlier in this thread), then one may start getting a bit of an idea of the difficulty of “Detection and Retention” of targets (poachers).
Eric, when we started, before I invested almost a million ZAR of of my own money to date, we began by looking at all the projects that had gone before us but we quickly changed to ascertaining what would be needed for a drone to be effective in the South African anti-poaching war. Two factors stood out more than anything else. The first was that thermal cameras are not effective in the conditions we have here. You can only chase what you can see and in a lot of cases you can’t see much. The second is man power and human fatigue after trying to watch a monitor for hours on end.
What we have done is that we are relying on an AI which is on board the drone. We are also working to train the AI differently using unique simulated data. That helps with the human element but not the thermal camera issue.
To try get around this we are working with radar and Lidar experts looking to see if its possibly to combine the Thermal monitoring with other technologies. It looks like we may have something that could work and essential the AI would initially compare two data streams and then activate a 3rd (power hungry system) if need be.
Thank you for sharing Graham.
It’s very disturbing and shocking to see a first hand account of the sheer scale and intensity of such brutality.
It does seem like a hopeless situation but the tech is also starting to improve
significantly each year and there will come a point where UAV tech, AI, etc will start
to help tip the balance against poaching.
As a lead into what Robert Miller is trying to do, do you think there is any
value in making the search more " event " driven. It appears that it takes
on average a week or so for discovery of a carcass (on the bit of data you posted).
Would it make sense to devote UAV missions to identify carcass during the
daytime and then focus the night time patrols around those carcass finds
similar to what maybe a trekker would do.
Do you know if there is a geotagged database of carcass finds due to poaching?
I think as a start try watch a movie called “Stroop” it really highlights what we are up against and the war we are
Fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds. Some reserves will find a drying rhino minutes after its been poached. Our problem is getting enough people and co-operation involved in this. Add the fact that a successful anti poaching drone is an autonomous human hunter and we are in very difficult territory I am willing to collaborate with anyone who can help because we have to win this war and drones are a vital component in this fight. I didn’t expect that
It would costs anywhere near as much as it has and I expect that I am in for another 1-2 million of my own funds. I am just thankful that we have some very skilled people who have come on-board at no cost because they understand we have to win this war.
One of our engineering contributors is involved in military development and we are currently looking at combining a mini radar system with thermal, IR camera and visible camera. The onboard AI will evaluate the data and if it works the way we hope it will, you will not be able to hide from a UAV with this system onboard.
Hi Robert. If your objective is to stop the poaching, I think your time/money would be better spent on sensors, processing, and deep learning rather than on new airframes. It may seem useful to have VTOL, but in an established battle ground like Kruger, it would be more reliable to use one of the runways or set up a catapult for day/night operation.
Kruger is easier but we are planning to operate in smaller private reserves outside Kruger and its a different scenario there.
WHAT runways, Ronald? Skukuza has the only asphalt runway and it’s 80km (50mi N) from Kingfisherspruit (202,878 acres), one of the poaching hotspots, N’wanetsi (236,627 acres), another hotspot is 90km (60mi NE) and Stolsnek (172,126 acres) is 60km (40mi SW). There are few if any dirt runways within 20km of the hotspots. And note, a hotspot can be quiet for weeks or months and then suddenly rangers find 3-5 fresh carcasses.
Catapults are cumbersome, complicated and noisy so we used bungee’s with great success. That was the easy part, we launched in the veld or off a dirt road (after doing a thorough check for lions/hyenas/buffaloes/elephants/rhinos/hippos and leopards. Landing was another story, try landing a 40km/h aircraft in the pitch dark where you can’t see your hand in front of your face on a narrow dirt track in high crosswinds surrounded by 10m tall knobthorns (acacia nigrenscens) and 1.5m tall thatch grass. Also planes don’t do well landing at 40km/h on a dirt road covered in 2 inch corrugations (washboard).
A couple more notes from our PM:
You cannot apprehend scared, armed people who run like wild animals at night in the African bush.
You cannot get within 2km of them in a vehicle before they’ll run when they hear the vehicle.
You cannot walk an anti-poaching team to them, in the dark, through lion, elephant and buffalo-infested bush from 5-10km away, (lions catch and eat people here BTW, especially night-blind people stumbling around in the dark - night vision equipment is very expensive!) while the drone tries to keep an eye on them (retention) and hopefully they don’t run off into the bush in the interim.
VTOL tech was still in it’s infancy then but would have been a perfect solution for reliable launch and recovery, so Robert is spot on with choosing the VTOL path as it would have saved us countless headaches and emergency repairs.
Here’s some thermal video of elephant and giraffe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sn3vZ6gwh8
And the typical terrain where poaching occurs:
Guys, for a better understanding of the rhino poaching epidemic PLEASE go watch the film “Stroop: Journey into the rhino horn war” (https://www.sdbfilms.com/stroopabout)
It’s available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes and Vimeo, all funds generated go to anti-poaching efforts
I do care for those animals from a biodiversity perspective as well as from the perspective that every person has a right to live. I think there is no significant moral difference of killing a human or a non human animal. The only significant difference is the reason why one does kill. But I wonder if there is an ethical problem with what is done here, especially because it is probably not against the real criminals but against poor people working for them. If so, I think it should probably be solved in a different way.
After reading the thread I wonder if it’s possible that at the end there will be a “nice” surveillance drone which is suitable for other tasks but not for the intended one? I wonder if this new drone has the same limitations as the once used before?
I also ask myself if even if the drone is initially better than the previous ones the poachers will soon find cheap ways to avoid detection, e.g they could detect incoming drones with RF or sound scanners and hide under a blanket or they could use jammers, cheap attack drones or simply shoot them down.
I think that a surveillance solution is an approach to mitigate the symptoms of the underlying problem. It is important to do but only part of the solution. When reading about the amount of money spend for this solution I wonder if there are any more efficient ways to invest that money against poaching.
Since the detection rate is so low, would it be probably a similar or more successful solution to establish a on ground sensors network within the main approach routes of the poachers?
Tobias, yes, there’s a system in place called Meerkat: https://www.countrylife.co.za/wildlife/postcode-meerkat-watching-kruger-national-park and https://www.defenceweb.co.za/security/border-security/meerkat-named-a-sanparks-innovator-of-the-year/ which is another of the weapons in the arsenal.
Regarding who is killing the rhino’s, the demand for the horn is from the middle and far east and yes it’s the local poor population who do the dirty work, but they know it’s illegal and they do earn quite a bit of money for each horn and become repeat, professional offenders . For them it’s just a commodity like cocaine or gold and worth about the same.
But do yourself a favour and watch the film Stroop, it only costs $10.
Tobias, that’s exactly what our drone is designed for, aerial surveillance. We have already included aspects of search and rescue etc into the design specifications and we are also working on a power tether system.