When the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) wanted to fight animal poachers—illegal hunters of wildlife—they decided to bring in an unorthodox weapon: Drones. But these drones were different from the killer Predators of public imagination. Instead, they were unarmed, superlightweight, and users launch them by throwing them into the air—in fact, they are heavily modified model aircraft. After negotiations, Nepal was chosen as a pilot site for the wildlife drones. First launched in mid-2012, the WWF drones offered a new, experimental method of stopping poachers.
Now, wildlife-protecting drones are coming to the rest of the world. Last week, Google announced they would help the WWF purchase African and Asian poacher-seeking UAVs. As part of Google’s 2012 Global Impact Awards program, the WWF received $5 million to buy similar unarmed drones to watch and track African wildlife poachers.
"We want to use integrated technologies to create a protective umbrella around [animals in poacher zones]," says Crawford Allan of Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network. Traffic is a joint project of the WWF and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature dedicated to monitoring illegal trade in plants and animals. Alongside drones, the WWF is experimenting with using a number of other high-tech tools such as night-vision cameras, heat imagery systems, and GPS tagging of animals in poacher-infested zones.
In a conversation with Fast Company, Allan noted the importance of poachers feeling that they are "watched and monitored." More importantly, later versions of anti-poacher drones can integrate GPS-tagged animals and ground-based analytical databases and algorithms to generate predictive analytics of where poachers will operate. Although these capabilities are not currently available—both the African and Nepalese drones are relatively simple, early-generation affairs—they are within easy technological reach over the next few years.
Another future technology being considered by the WWF are portable cell phone towers for use in national parks participating in UAV programs. These would benefit nearby residents while offering easy triangulation of both animals and poachers for the unarmed aircraft.
One thing that isn’t known is where the new African and Asian anti-poacher UAVs will be deployed. In conversation with the WWF, the organization noted that logistical and legal issues such as U.S. export laws would affect where the UAVs are placed. The WWF also wants to find optimal environments and ecosystems for the unarmed drones to operate in.
In Nepal, the country’s military and park rangers operate their test drone fleet, which uses GPS-enabled FPVRaptors equipped with cameras. Each drone is equipped with still and video capabilities, can fly a pre-programmed route of approximately 16 miles, and can fly for up to 50 minutes. The UAVs are launched by hand; apart from animal poachers, the aircraft are also used to scout out illegal loggers. Each UAV costs approximately $2,500 and the drones operate in Chitwan National Park, which is home to a large Bengal Tiger, leopard, and rhinoceros population.
"Nepal is committed to stopping wildlife crime, which is robbing Nepal of its natural resources, putting the lives of rangers and local communities at risk, and feeding into global criminal networks […] Technologies like these non-lethal UAVs could give our park rangers a vital advantage against dangerously armed poachers," said Gen. Krishna Acharya of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in a press release.
The small size and quiet motor of the drones is beneficial from the point of view of Nepalese authorities. Unlike helicopters, small UAVs are inconspicuous and blend into the landscape. Poachers are frequently armed, and the relatively cheap cost of UAVs means that rangers can afford to have a few shot out of the air. UAVs can also easily access mountainous or inaccessible areas.
Once poachers are spotted, satellite coordinates are sent to on-the-ground law enforcement and military units, who can then intercept the poachers. The WWF notes that safety precautions are taken by the ground operators of the UAV, even though the aircraft itself is unarmed.
While Google and the WWF are deploying drones in Nepal and Africa to stop poachers, the idea of using UAVs for wildlife monitoring is nothing new. Here in the United States, researchers have done proof of concept projects in monitoring bird populations with drones. As FAA regulations evolve stateside, scientists and law enforcement alike are interested in the monitoring capabilities offered by lightweight, unarmed drones. In the meantime, we will be hearing more and more about UAVs with novel purposes such as stopping wildlife poachers.