Knut Moe is the Director of Operations at EYE Remote Solutions. He is a long-term director of UAV related projects within petroleum, law enforcement and power utility industries. In addition to his job at EYE Remote Solutions, he serves as VP on the board of directors at UAS Norway, the Norwegian association for UAV operators, and is a frequent international lecturer on UAV methods, safety and airspace regulations. Follow him on Twitter @moeknut
The Media is overflowing with news concerning unmanned aircraft projects in various parts of the world intended to prevent the poaching of animals. It is vital for the unmanned aircraft industry to understand the background of these criminal acts, and that time is against us.
Poaching – a complex problem similar to the drug trade
The problem of animal poaching exists in multiple regions of the world and affects endangered animals such as tiger, elephant, rhinoceros and bald eagles. Poaching is driven by money – money provided to poachers by people driven by vanity or belief in the supernatural healing powers of the dead animals.
The fight against poaching can only be won through education.
However, the rate of educating those inclined to purchase poached products is far lower than the rate of extinction we are seeing on these animals. By the time mankind’s craving for tiger fur and ivory has subsided, these animals will be long gone.
Many of the world’s problems -famine, disasters, war, disease- that threaten millions of people often coincide geographically with the areas endangered animals call home.
This means governments must carefully select who and what is worth saving versus who and what isn’t. On top of this, government officials in many of these places are corrupt to the bone, making it difficult to funnel funding efficiently into the animal’s habitats.
When taking on poaching, you are dealing with poor peasants being paid crumbs to kill precious animals and smuggle contraband across borders while traffickers and dealers get rich selling on the black market – all while inefficient government control leaves most of the industry alone. It is very similar to the drug trade, but with much less risk for the involved.
Policing what we have until we have a long term solution
Prognoses on when the various endangered animal species will actually go extinct varies with whom you ask, but for the white rhino it is conservatively estimated there are 21,000 left in the wild. With roughly 1,200 killed every year, scientists believe we have around 8 years left until the species will not be able to sustain itself – making it a species for the history books. That is 96 months from now.
With governments unable to agree on how to police this issue, it is time for private initiatives to step up and create immediate solutions to protect the white rhino population. Unfortunately, the initiatives we’ve seen so far have been somewhat ad-hoc and proof of concept-ish.
My company, EYE Remote Solutions led a UAV project in a rhino habitat in South Africa this spring; it was pro-bono and supported by a local NGO. We approached this as a high security, rapid deployment, long term presence job, and we enlisted the assistance of several high-end technological partners to produce a viable solution – deployable immediately.
During our stay, we worked on the following problems:
- These habitats are enormous in size, and searching them even with a manned aircraft – takes weeks.
- Maintaining a permanent aerial presence is very hard when assessed in lieu of available human resources, funds and expertise.
- Collected information needs to be kept secure – from collection to analysis to dissemination. If the information where to fall into the hands of the poachers, it would damage the current situation further.
Establish a secure habitat canopy
The backbone of a security operation like ours is a capable operations center, a central dispatch where collected information from the field can be assessed coolly, disseminated as needed, and archived for statistics. The operations center is manned with knowledgeable operators, able to securely receive geo-referenced, real time sensor information from the field.
To accomplish this, we establish a rapid deployable mobile network in the area. This network allowed for encrypted voice and data communications within the entire geographical area of the habitat.
The rangers can now collect and send information, and the landowners can be sure that information is not leaked to eavesdroppers.
Closing the habitat canopy down
When it comes to policing animal poaching, we have seen many proposals that label UAVs as the silver bullet. But it is not that simple. Weather and operational restrictions, federal regulations, jamming vulnerabilities, required expertise, logistical challenges and cost of operations are all valid arguments as to why an “unmanned skycap” is not feasible within the time constraints we have. However, today’s UAV’s have plenty of resources to assist in the counter poaching projects. A UAV can:
- Be launched rapidly to an area of interest to quickly get an overview of what is the current situation in that specific location.
- Stealthily track the exfiltration of persons of interest from the poaching area to calculate best position for interception.
- Demonstrate presence to persons of interest on the ground in order to show they are being watched, preventing further crimes.
However bold and proud this makes us, we would never attempt to sell this off as a solution. It does not detect intrusions and ill intent by persons on the ground, it only allows us to monitor a situation when we have established an area of interest.
To detect intruding humans on foot, we established a network of advanced listening devices – sensing anything from footsteps to gunshots. When we introduced the geo-referenced information of these devices into our secure canopy GIS system, we had the entire habitat surveyed in real time. We were able to track movements and quickly assess activities that appeared out of the ordinary. This in turn allowed us to send our UAVs to that location, and show force by indicating to people on the ground they were being watched.
Our operations center was able to monitor the situation securely, to dispatch rangers to the ideal point of intercept and provide an “eye in the sky” for the ground teams.
It is IT, it is infrastructure, it is human resources, it is drones, and it is know how. It is key players of the industry coming together. It is done. It works.
Check out some pictures from Knut’s trip to South Africa:
From interim trial to permanent fixture
Our trials in the region have ended, and we are amidst the challenging search for funds to make this happen on a permanent basis. It gives us both a sense of purpose and source of frustration, because we know how to make this work on a big scale – but we lack the funds to implement it.
We are just one player in this field, there are many – on behalf of all of us: We need the ones with the intention to help end poaching, and the financial ability to do so, to enter the field along with us. ASAP.
So, dear bureaucrats, officers, executives, investors and industry professionals: Consider this a call to action, if you didn’t think the UAV industry was capable of changing the game in the fight against poaching, you were wrong. We are here. We are ready.
All images by Enrique Vidal.