Anti-Poaching and Agriculture Drones


Today’s post comes courtesy of my wonderful wife, a lover of animals. Thomas Snitch, a Visiting Professor in Advanced Computer Studies at University of Maryland and CEO of GeoQuera wrote about his work in analyzing data to combat poaching in Africa.  I have linked to his article, which is in the creative commons, but please check it out for his full report.


Amazingly, three rhinos are killed every day and one elephant every 15 minutes; with rhino horns fetching up to $500,000 and elephant tusks up to $125,000!  That is amazing for animals that are protected.  The former are being killed for the supposed medicinal properties of their horns and that latter for their renowned ivory. He is developing analytic models that incorporate a swath of data (including satellite imagery, animal ankle trackers, and even moon data).  However, UAS have revolutionized his modeling capabilities for park rangers that can effectively employ the data.


His goal is to use the data to determine the location of the animals, and then that can be used to target the UAS on the animals.  Sure you might miss some poachers, but the only ones that matter are the ones near the animals.  This again illustrates why UAS is the best term – the aircraft is only a small part of the overall system designed to track down poachers!

The result: where they’ve used his analytics and launched UAS, poaching has decreased dramatically.  In one instance, they went from losing a few rhinos per week to zero in 90 days!

Mr. Snitch is not the only one working to use UAS to combat poaching.  Airware, a UAS company in San Francisco, is working with the 90,000 acre Ol Pejeta Conservancy.  The Kenyan Wildlife Service supported the testing, which also incorporates ground-based analytical technology.

Acacia tree at sunrise with Mount Kenya in the  background. Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancy.Kenya
Ol Pejeta Conservancy with Mount Kenya in the background

South Africa’s Kruger National Park is a hot spot for legal wildlife tourism, but is heavily poached as well so the country has multiple reasons to combat poaching.  However, they note that the size of the preserves means that the typical Phantom will not suffice given its short range and higher-endurance aircraft cost over $50K.  Furthermore, any system that has the range for an African wildlife preserve is going to be strictly controlled by US export law.

Kruger National Park


In the US, UAS are expected to help with agriculture rather than game preserves.  We fortunately don’t have the extreme poaching problems as they do in Africa, but we have lots of farmland that feeds us.  A company called Empire Unmanned, based in Idaho and run by a retired Air Force UAS pilot, is hoping to enter the fray.

They are planning to work with potato growers in Idaho, cattle ranchers in Montana, and wineries in the Northwest.   They won’t be selling their product directly to landowners until they can be used legally by them but hope to be out by the beginning of March for planting season.  They have contracted with farmers working on  up to 14,000 acres of land and will use the UAS to detect problem crops and even to use thermal imaging to detect sick cows!

They seem to have done everything right – they have $2M in liability coverage and the article states that they are waiting on a “Certificate of Authorization” from the FAA to fly.  The aircraft, the eBee, was the subject of a separate 333 Exemption to Advanced Aviation.  It appears that Advanced Aviation has teamed up with Empire Aerospace to form Empire Unmanned, and presumably operate under the 333 exemption.

Hunting Regulatory Update

Also in the US, UAS are being outlawed in some states for hunting.  This issue is a very different issue, but it has joined both conservationists and hunters.  Many hunters believe that the use of drones disturbs the balanced playing field established by state gaming regulations and is not ethical.  Alaska did so last year.  Montana and Colorado did so as well and Idaho and Wisconsin believe current gaming regulations prohibiting use of aircraft in gaming apply to UAS.  Other states in which hunting is common have petition or proposed laws as well.

The following video has been referenced by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, which has lobbied states to ban the use of UAS in hunting.  They agree that the use of UAS is not ethical.  I do not understand what is being spoken in the video, but they are either sightseeing or scouting for a future hunt.  Either way, the mere tone and frivolity of the video seems out of place with either nature or hunting.

Finally, UAS have been used improperly in relation to wildlife.  While the moose above seems unfazed (I don’t know how since I take a breath and any wildlife runs away from me), a lion was not.  In a video that has been since taken down, a user brought his drone close to a wild lion, which swatted it out of the air.  He’s fortunately out one drone.  Here is a still of the lion about to pounce:

lion swatIn the end, I still think these inappropriate users – whether for hunting or taunting lions, are in the vast minority.  Hopefully programs such as those in Africa and Idaho will prove successful.



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