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A Challenge to the World: Build a Better Conservation Drone

By David Wilkie, Robert Rose | Wildlife Conservation Society | December 18, 2013

What if UAV developers could imagine their inventions through the eyes of conservation field staff?

Poachers are escalating the global war on wildlife through advanced technologies and techniques. In Asia, they are hacking into the signals from satellite collars to find and kill tigers. In Africa, criminal syndicates are reportedly using helicopters and infrared goggles to kill elephants in the dead of night.

To combat this sophisticated and expanding traffic in wildlife, conservationists must themselves turn to new technologies if they are to shift the balance. Yet with perennially limited funds, government park rangers, community eco-guards, and conservation groups struggle to keep up.

One option for extending their reach at only a small additional cost is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—commonly called "drones." Once the sole domain of the military, these devices now show great promise in strengthening wildlife law enforcement.

Fixed-wing conservation UAVs are being used today to successfully keep track of hard-to-see rhinos in Nepal, and to monitor elephant habitat and prevent the illegal expansion of palm oil plantations in Sumatra. They also have tremendous potential for patrolling coastal fisheries.

To move beyond law enforcement to crime prevention, the evolution of UAV technology must first be guided by a few practical, cost-saving priorities. Increased battery life and flight duration, greater payloads, cheaper infrared sensors, and affordable real-time transmission of imagery would all make a major difference.

But what if UAV developers could imagine their inventions through the eyes of conservation field staff? They might conjure a fisheries agent based on a coastal atoll who uses a tethered balloon carrying a radar sensor to detect all vessels that enter the community's no-take fishing sanctuary. With this real-time information, the agent could quickly radio pinpoint directions to a local patrol boat, enabling its officers to prevent illegal fishing or to arrest poachers—saving thousands of dollars in fuel that is normally spent cruising the ocean in search of poachers.

Or instead our drone technicians might envision Congo forest eco-guards getting a closer and safer look at what appears be a group of well-armed ivory poachers near a salt lick. A guard deploys an almost silent, battery-powered hexacopter that maneuvers below the canopy, searching for signs of poachers. The UAV returns on its own with photographic evidence that the sounds the eco-guard had heard were just a small band of hunter-gatherers who have the right to take from the forest. Properly designed UAVs could cover more area and, importantly, give eco-guards a tactical advantage.

Rotting remains of 26 forest elephants killed in spring 2013 by rebel poachers at the Dzanga Bai salt lick, a protected area in Central African Republic. PHOTO CREDIT: © Mike Fay/WCS.

UAV developers might even conceive of a squadron of drones with heat-sensing cameras flying across the vast plains of Central Asia's Ustyurt Plateau, searching for signs of saiga antelope poachers. Vehicle engines and warm bodies provide telltale signs that would otherwise be hidden by the night.

Advances such as these would allow conservationists working with government agencies and community conservancies to cover more ground, at more times of day, with greater safety—patrolling more effectively with negligible change in staff and operating costs. With these advances we can do more than catch poachers: We can prevent the killing in the first place.

We challenge the conservation community to establish a competition for the development of practical and effective conservation drones.

Prizes such as the automotive XPRIZE (vehicle efficiency), the lunar XPRIZE (space exploration), the genomics XPRIZE (genome sequencing), and the DARPA Grand Challenge (autonomous systems) have all hung a carrot in front of the world's innovators.

We challenge the conservation community to take a page from these initiatives by establishing a competition to reward the development of the most practical and effective UAVs for conservation. With a modest influx of financial support, we could soon have the technologies we need to expand the reach of eco-guard patrols, while at the same time enhancing the effectiveness of wildlife law enforcement and reducing risks to our courageous rangers.

It's an urgent challenge with an added reward: providing future generations with the awe that comes from knowing that iconic animals like elephants, rhinos, and tigers continue to roam safely in the wild—and, with luck, seeing them firsthand.

David Wilkie is director of Conservation Support for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Robert Rose is WCS assistant director of Conservation Support.

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Read More: Conservation, Environment, Innovation, Science, Security, Sustainability, Technology, Trade, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Africa, Asia, Global

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