South Africa is home to most of the world’s Rhinos, but with close to 10,000 of the county’s population lost to poaching over the past ten years, it is also the country most affected by this sort of wildlife crime.
The Kruger National Park has consistently suffered heavy poaching losses resulting in a population reduction of 60% since 2013. Rhino conservation is a big deal in the country which is why environmental NPO, The Eye Above, is attacking it head on – from the air.
The Eye Above is prototyping and testing a fleet of drones specifically designed to assist game rangers on the ground with detecting poachers and poaching activity – before an animal is killed.
Drones operating in the sky, allows ground teams to cover hundreds of square kilometres quickly and easily, scoping rugged terrain in minutes rather than hours. In addition, this advantage enables antipoaching units to respond fast and effectively, ensuring that every second and every action counts.
“This project aims to design a drone platform built in Africa for use in the harsh and unforgiving African landscape. Extensive research has gone into what is required to make a drone viable in the Southern African arena, with most of the technology built from the ground up,” says Robert Miller of The Eye Above.
Each drone operates from a base near a ranger station. Rangers are trained to manage the drones for antipoaching activity but also the fleet’s maintenance.
This project had to overcome a few hurdles that could’ve hindered its success. Terrain was one; The Eye Above’s drone fleet has to operate in some of the harshest conditions on earth – the South African bushveld. It’s full of trees, hills, rocks, animals, dust and is subject to quick temperature changes. They also need to cover a vast amount of territory, which requires long autonomous flights, all while being as quiet as possible so as not to disturb the animals or alert would-be poachers.
The skillset on the ground also had to be taken into consideration. The game rangers are not skilled drone pilots or operators, and they do not need to be, but thought had to be given to the ongoing maintenance of the drones and the requirement for spares.
The solution was to design a v-tol drone from scratch, optimised for surveillance and designed to fly autonomously, with systems that work within the airframe design. To address this, The Eye Above uses the Lightware LW20, a small form LiDAR with a 100-meter range, in an IP67 enclosure.
LiDAR – which stands for Light Detection and Ranging – is an active remote-sensing technology that uses light pulses (in the form of lasers) which are sent into the surrounding environment to measure the distance to objects in the environment. In this way a LiDAR sensor gives a drone eyes.
The Lightware LW20 was a perfect choice because it’s light (just 20 grams), small, and has low power consumption, all of which are critical to ensure flight time is not impacted. In addition, it’s being used on the drone for its detect and avoid, altimeter and terrain following capabilities. The LiDAR lets the drone know when it’s coming within 100 meters of the ground, precisely where it is relative to the ground at all times and gives it terrain following capabilities. “There are cheaper and heavier LiDARs available, but the magic was to find a high-performance LiDAR at a good price for the size/weight requirements that work for our airframe. Lightware LiDAR was the only company that ticked all these boxes,“ says Miller.
The Eye Above project was started specifically to address rhino poaching, but as it’s progressed, the team is excited at the prospect of expanding its fleet of drones for use in the fight against a variety of wildlife crimes like lobster and abalone poaching, but also other vital services like sea rescue and firefighting.
Philip Constantine is CEO of LightWare LiDAR.