Drones Are Now Being Used To Stop Rhino Poachers in Their Tracks

In South Africa’s National Park, a team of park rangers, anti-poaching officials and UAV pilots huddle in a command and control center- a technology stacked RV, with monitors, detection instruments and two-way radios - and they wait. Twenty miles away, a group of rhino roams the dark African bush, and their slow movement is broadcasted on the team’s monitors in real time. Earlier that day, park rangers were tipped off about a group of poachers who were planning to infiltrate the grounds overnight to illegally slaughter rhinos for their horns. But that won’t be happening tonight.

The park rangers, anti-poaching officials and UAV pilots have the collaborative anti-poaching process down pat: they park the monitoring vehicle, set up the technology in less than ten minutes, and deploy a UAV to patrol the expansive grounds. Two stations, a sensor operator station and a flight operator station, are equipped with video monitors and control equipment.  Anti-poaching units and section rangers work with the UAV operators to compare incoming data with their local knowledge of the terrain. If any poachers are detected in the area, the team deploys an anti-poaching group that results in their arrest, and ultimately saves the threatened animals.

“We are the operators responsible for deploying the UAVs in the bush, and interpreting the incoming information for the people who need it,” said Rob Hannaford, UVU graduate and one of the first South African organizations to build, design and develop UAVs. “Our UAVs are equipped with thermal imaging hi-res cameras that locate illegal poachers in the darkness from a great distance away.”  

Hannaford’s business tackles a problem never before addressed with UAV technology: monitoring threatened animals, without individual trackers, in real time. According to Hannaford, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are the most efficient and successful tools for surveying sprawling grounds. UAVs provide instantaneous footage, while also remaining undetected and does not disturb the animals as a helicopter or plane would. UAVs are equipped with hi-res thermal imaging cameras, long-range video feed capabilities, and object detection software. They are tough enough to withstand harsh elements in the African bush, and they’re cheap to repair if need be. All of these qualities, says Hannaford, are what makes a UAV the ideal method to monitor the park’s grounds.

“The solution is durable, cheap, and extremely efficient,” Hannaford said. “Plus, ninety-five percent of the poaching incidents happen at night, which is why thermal imaging cameras are absolutely critical to this process. We are able to determine where the animals and the poachers are located based solely on the infrared heat they emit.”

In South Africa, the fight against rhino poaching is commonly referred to as a war. Their government takes the protection of these animals with the utmost seriousness, but the slaughter is still increasing. According to Hannaford, myths surrounding the supernatural powers of rhino horns run rampant in Chinese and Vietnamese villages, spawning groups to infiltrate designated reserve areas in pursuit of the revered goods. “One rhino is shot every eight hours,” he said grimly. “We need to utilize cutting-edge technology to stop this rhino war that’s waging on our land.”

But UAVs offer unprecedented technology that has never before been introduced. Government officials across Africa are reaching out to Hannaford to find out what technology he’s using.

In conjunction with the local authorities and anti-poaching groups, UDS has successfully flown over 1,500 anti-poaching missions. And this is just the beginning of their success. Beyond his anti-poaching efforts, Hannaford is developing unmanned aerial vehicles for South Africa’s commercial industry, with specific solutions designed for 3D mapping, photography, precision agriculture and beyond.

In order to prepare himself for a life-changing career involving unmanned aerial vehicles, Hannaford first sought a formal education so that he would be properly educated and trained on the capabilities, applications and safety regulations surrounding drones. After a simple Google search, Hannaford found Unmanned Vehicle University and pursued a Professional Certificate in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Management. “I can’t even begin to place the value that I have drawn from my education at Unmanned Vehicle University,” Hannaford said. “I started UDS two-and-half years ago because of the knowledge that I gained during my formal education. My UVU credentials proved to the local authorities that I am educated enough to take on a project this important. I wouldn’t be in this position without UVU.”

After taking a 12-week UAV Fundamentals Course, Hannaford went on to take courses in UAV Design & Construction, In-Flight Training, Flight Test Engineering and Remote Sensing with UAVs. “Education is absolutely critical for anyone who wants to get involved with drones,” Hannaford concluded. “Drone education makes you a safer aviator, teaches you about new technologies that are available for the taking, all while simultaneously broadening your knowledge of a brand new industry.”

For in-depth videos on the anti-poaching project, watch , here and here.