Poachers, be warned: Airware's drones are coming for you (except for the man who recently acquired a $350,000 permit to hunt an endangered black rhino in Namibia. The drones will probably have to leave him alone).
Airware, a company that offers a development platform for drones (including both the hardware and software, and an API), believes in the power of drones to do useful things outside of the military, where they're most frequently used. When entrepreneur Chris Dixon invested in Airware this past May, he said that the company's technology could help farmers survey their crops, inspectors examine power lines and power plants, and in mapping and police work. But right now, Airware is tackling wildlife conservation.
Wildlife reserves often rely on a relatively small number of rangers to keep track of poachers and preserve wildlife. They do fly over their land, but in manned operations where people look out the window and hand-count animals. "Our real focus at Airware is taking these technologies that were typically very personnel- and people-intensive and making them highly autonomous," says Airware CEO Jonathan Downey.
The company just completed a two-week series of tests at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, which hosts endangered rhinos, chimpanzees, lions, elephants, and more. During the tests, the infrared-equipped drones flew over the 90,000-acre game reserve and logged video of every person, animal, and vehicle that passed beneath them. This wasn't a poacher-capturing operation, however, but more of a dry run.
Airware tested out three different drones, which flew up to an hour at a time and transmitted all the video captured to the ground, where it could be watched in real time or at a later date—and eventually, Airware hopes to have a system in place that automatically counts the animals. In one potentially threatening situation (for the drone, at least), a drone's transmitter cable was run over by a lawnmower, and the drone lost communications with the ground. Eight minutes later, it returned to its starting point and landed autonomously, just like it was supposed to.
"We were very successful in all the things we wanted to demonstrate—spotting animals, identifying animals from the air day and night, being able to spot people, operating outside of lines of site...real-time digital communications sent to the ground," says Downey. "We also demoed possible failure scenarios such as loss of communications."
The high price of drones—Airware has said in the past that its drones can cost between $20,000 and $50,000—could be off-putting to cash-strapped wildlife reserves. But Downey believes that the more drones there are roving the skies for all types of commercial applications, the faster prices will fall.
In the meantime, outside organizations can give money to pick up the slack. The World Wildlife Fund, which has been testing conservation drones since 2012, received $5 million from Google's Global Impact Awards program to buy drones that track African wildlife poachers.
Downey knows that wildlife conservation won't be a major revenue stream for Airware, but it could prove to be an important training ground. Since the FAA has only given permission for six drone test sites in the U.S. (it will have commercial drone guidelines by the end of 2015), Airware's experience in places like Ol Pejeta will prove to be crucial experience when it finally can let its drones loose across the U.S. "This is something we really believe in and want to be successful," says Downey.