WARNING: This article contains graphic images that may be upsetting.
RESTON, VA — Rhinos in South Africa may soon see flying robots watching their backs and alerting rangers to the presence of poachers. That’s the vision of The Wildlife Conservation Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Challenge, a new competition sponsored by the Al-Kareem Foundation.
Princess Aliyah, Founder and CEO of the Foundation, highlighted the need for action and reiterated that now that the awareness has been raised, the next goal is to bring concrete solutions that will have a measurable impact on the ground.
As a descendant of royals from Kashmir, a country struggling to combat poaching of endangered snow leopards, Princess Aliyah is lending her support to help protect South African rhinos.
“We’re bringing together an international consortium of industry, government, academic and community organizations to stop rhinoceros poaching in Kruger Park,” she said.
Kruger Park is the flagship park of the South African National Park (SANParks) system. Since 2010, the park lost 50% of its rhinos to poaching.
Poaching Is Bigger and More Organized
Poaching has always been a problem, but if the outcry seems louder today than ever before it’s because the problem has gotten worse. Far worse. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), wildlife trafficking is now the 3rd largest organized crime in the world, estimated at $19 Billion.
Elephant tusks are valued at $1,600 per pound making one pair worth $104,000. China is a main consumer of the tusks. Rhino horn is valued even higher, fetching $30,000 per pound. Each rhino horn could net close to $450,000. Currently, Vietnam is the main consumer of rhino horn.
In response, governments and charitable organizations around the world are converging to take action.
Underscoring this is President Obama’s new initiative to fight wildlife trafficking. An Executive Order signed July 1st states that “Poaching operations have expanded beyond small-scale, opportunistic actions to coordinated slaughter commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates.”
The initial kickoff held September 9th at Nova Labs ran concurrently with the Forum to Counter Wildlife Trafficking held at the White House.
South African Delegation
Representing the delegation from South Africa was Marius Roos, a Colonel in the South African Army Reserve Force and CEO of Pathfinder Corp (slides). Pathfinder holds the security contract for SANParks.
Roos stressed that while the UAV will be an important tool in the fight, there needs to be a comprehensive and layered approach that includes ground-based sensors and an integrated communications network.
He also tried to put the value of rhino horn in perspective.
“Right now rhino horn is more valuable than gold,” Roos said.
Also with the delegation was Scott “LB” Williams, an American retired Air Force Major who left the military 3 years shy of his 20 years of service to join the fight to protect rhinos in South Africa (slides).
Despite the size, organization and funding of the criminal syndicates, Williams sees hope due to the grassroots support of South Africans. Noting that many of the cars he sees driving by now feature bumper stickers supporting the rhino, he believes the tide is turning.
“This fight is not lost. We can win this. We have to win this,” Williams said.
A critical piece of the puzzle will be innovation. The terrain and conditions in South Africa are harsh, and the poaching occurs at night so teams will have their work cut out for them.
Mark Litke, business and product development manager at Aurora Flight Sciences, showed off one innovative design know as the “Skate.” The “Skate” combines the tactical advantage of a vertical takeoff with long endurance fixed wing flight (slides).
“It’s meant to be backpack-able for quick deployment and immediate situational awareness,” Litke said.
In April of this year, Aurora sent a team to the Welgevonden Game Preserve in South Africa to demonstrate Skate’s abilities to support anti-poaching and game management missions.
Former Congressman of Oklahoma, Bill Brewster, was on hand to highlight the progress of UAV research and development at Oklahoma State University. Organizers are considering Oklahoma State as a site for the national competition.
Representing the best work of academia on the East Coast was Dr. Thomas Snitch, a Distinguished Senior Professor at The University of Maryland’s Institute of Advanced Computer Studies. He directs a team working specifically on anti-poaching UAV projects (slides).
To the make the solution feasible, Dr. Thomas Snitch argued that a system will need to utilize predictive analysis and heuristic modeling to narrow areas to be monitored.
His team flew a number of test flights in Africa from May to June and had some advice for potential challengers. Specifically for US entrants, UAV technology must be exportable.
This highlighted the importance of university and hobbyist participation. More than likely, large companies manufacturing UAVs have technology that can’t be shared outside the country. He said that any potential solution needs to be exportable, importable, affordable, maintainable, and easy to use in the field.
The Maker Movement
The appeal of low cost, open source hardware platforms that could accomplish great things was what piqued organizers’ interest in Nova Labs. So much so that plans are in the works to partner with an existing space to help support SANParks in South Africa. If a suitable space cannot be found, a “sister” makerspace (modeled off of Nova Labs) may be established.
Justin Leto, Co-Founder of Nova Labs, said the space’s community is always eager to help make the world a better place.
“What’s attractive about our model is that it features community ownership, a low capital requirement, organic growth and scalability, long term sustainability, and innovative STEM-based programming,” Leto said.
By seeking to work with makerspaces, the team hopes to provide an holistic approach that would allow SANParks to service and maintain the winning technology on their own long term. A team is planning a trip to South Africa in November to meet with officials and scout locations.
For more information or to sign up for the challenge, visit: http://www.alkareemfoundation.org/kashmir-robotics.html
Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge
In response to President Obama’s Executive Order on Wildlife Protection, the Al-Kareem Foundation is sponsoring the Wildlife Conservation Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Challenge to foster innovation and invention in the design, fabrication, and utilization of unmanned aircraft to assist with counter poaching and illicit wildlife trafficking. The challenge calls on students, hobbyists, academics, and corporations to cooperate in a Build & Fly challenge that emphasizes the integration of sensors, embedded systems, and
communications in a robust and high endurance aircraft.
The winning UAV will participate in counter-poaching missions throughout South African National Parks. Monetary and scholarship prizes will be awarded to regional winners and overall champions.
Col Marius Roos – CEO, Pathfinder Corp
Marius Roos has a strong military background and currently holds the rank of Colonel in the South African Army Reserve Force. Apart from a distinguished career in the military, he has also qualified himself in various disciplines of security, which he utilized with good effect whilst employed in the private sector. Until recently he held the position of Risk Intelligence Specialist at one of the largest Parastatals in South Africa.
Scott ‘LB’ Williams – CEO, Reserve Protection Agency
(Major) Scott ‘LB’ Williams served 17+ years in the US Air Force, is a defence systems specialist, decorated rescue aircraft commander, tactics officer, operations officer, aircraft maintenance quality assurance officer, HALO jumpmaster, and bilateral affairs officer (US Embassy—Pretoria). As a training officer, his training folder design served as a benchmark for Special Operations Command. He wrote and instructed numerous training syllabi and wrote squadron standardized operating procedures for combat deployment. His expertise in Joint Operations include building a Joint Task Force staff, as well as developing and overseeing tactical operation centers. Scott oversaw the New York State Partnership Program, led the largest US-South African military exercise, Exercise Shared Accord 2011, and is an honorary member of the South African Air Force Association and South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute.
Dr. Thomas Snitch – University of Maryland
Dr. Thomas Snitch currently holds a Distinguished Senior Professorship at the University of Maryland’s Institute of Advanced Computer Studies [UMIACS] where he directs a team working on anti-poaching issues. At the same time, he is a Senior Professor of Science at the United Nations University in Tokyo. In this role, he serves as the UN’s Executive Officer for the Worldwide Enforcement Monitoring Systems which oversees the global trade in endangered flora and fauna.
Dr. Snitch is also President of Little Falls Associates, Inc. and chief scientist at GeoQuera, consulting firms specializing in solving complex scientific and technological challenges in Asia and Africa. Since 1990, he has worked on issues such as responding to the Tohoku earthquake in Japan, remediation of abandoned chemical weapons in China, the disposal of PCB wastes on US military bases in the region, missile defense in Asia, remote sensing policy in India and the North Korean nuclear weapons situation.
In May and June, 2013, he led the first team to successfully fly night anti-poaching mission, using unmanned aerial systems, in South Africa.
Princess Aliyah – CEO, Al-Kareem Foundation
Princess Aliyah founded the Al-Kareem Foundation (AKF) in September 2008 to protect endangered species and to help disadvantaged people around the world build sustainable communities. Her approach is to enlighten with education and communications so people are aware of the broader context in which they live; and empower with real and financial infrastructures within which communities can flourish.
As a descendant of royals from Kashmir, a country struggling to combat poaching of endangered snow leopards, Princess Aliyah has a full appreciation of the costs of poaching and the challenge faced by conservationists.