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Startup designs drones to protect endangered animals from poachers

Startup designs drones to protect endangered animals from poachers


Airware has been working with one of Kenya's biggest nature conservancies

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white rhino kenya (flickr)
white rhino kenya (flickr)

The plains of Africa contain some of the world's most wondrous beasts. Unfortunately, many of them have been hunted to near-extinction by poachers, which is why a permit to shoot a single black rhino can fetch as much as $350,000.

Today, the San Francisco startup Airware announced the results of a successful field trial it ran at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, home to many endangered black and white rhino. Airware partnered with the conservancy to use specialized drones which can monitor huge swaths of land to protect rhinos against poachers.

Over the two-week test, Airware used three different drones: two fixed-wing aircraft and one flexible wing. "They were designed to operate completely autonomously, well out of the line of sight of the pilot," says Airware founder and CEO Jonathan Downey. Before the drones, park rangers had been using jeeps and small aircraft to patrol for poachers and check up on the animals. "Using drones allows them to spend a lot more time in the air, seeing a lot more detail, and for far cheaper than using traditional aircraft or jeeps," says the founder.

Designed to operate completely autonomously, well out of the line of sight of the pilot

The drones use infrared cameras for nighttime video and electro-optical cameras during the day. Because they fly so low, between 100 and 400 feet, Downey says they can capture great detail. "Using infrared we can easily spot a campfire being used by poachers, who often come in to the park at night. The level of detail is such that we can see an elephant's trunk change from white to black after he takes a drink of cold water."

Robert Breare, chief commercial officer of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, certainly seems pleased by the results of the test. "The Airware control system is outstanding," he said in a joint press release, adding that the system "over-delivered on his expectations."

And yet, it doesn't look like the test will lead to a lucrative contract for Airware — at least not with the conservancy.

"Far cheaper than using traditional aircraft or jeeps."

Ol Pejeta used Indiegogo to raise $46,000 for the Airware test, but the conservancy doesn't intend to pay for continued service. "This is not something we think will turn into a huge revenue stream for us," Downey admits.

But the partnership could be valuable for a different reason: raw experience. That $46,000 subsidized Airware's efforts to learn about completely autonomous flight. This kind of capability will be crucial for consumer drones in America, for example to power Amazon's proposed Prime Air delivery fleet. Right now there are only six FAA approved test sites for commercial drones in the US, and none are as expansive or full of live subjects as the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Airware's bet could lead to future opportunities. "We think [the project] can have a big impact and really showcase what this technology can do," says Downey.

The FAA has been mandated by Congress to create a set of guidelines for commercial drone flight over US soil by the end of 2015. Stateside PETA has faced off with local hunting groups, which want to make it illegal to use drones to monitor or harass hunters on US soil. So far, they have succeeded in the state of Illinois.