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Eagle Ray UAS Scans for Poachers

Written by Darshini Babu Ganesh

Information contained in this article was provided Mr. Mark Page and Dr. Ronald Pandolfi

“It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on earth”, says Sir David Attenborough, an environmental conservation broadcaster and natural historian. People make many decisions over a day that can have serious consequences for wildlife. Purchasing a pack of non-reusable water bottles.

Discarding it inappropriately. Driving over beaches during sea turtle nesting season. Purchasing ivory jewelry without stopping to think about its questionable sources. The last note brings us to a huge threat to wildlife conservation — poaching.

International and national laws are in place to protect endangered species, but with huge profits to be had, organized criminal networks are violating those laws killing elephants, rhinos, leopards, tigers, sea turtles and many other endangered and critically endangered species. Poorly equipped and often outgunned, rangers dedicated to protecting these animals are being gunned down as well.

The battle to stop the poaching has to be fought in the field. Unlike narcotics where there is a near infinite supply of the raw materials from field crops and a limited demand from users; with endangered species there is a very finite supply in the field and a near infinite demand.

Stopping the poaching requires raising the cost to criminal networks such that they stop sending soldiers into the field.

As field soldiers in international criminal networks, poachers are well trained, equipped and supported. According to Dr. Ronald Pandolfi, CTO of Kashmir-Robotics, “Poachers are

Photo by: David Hart, Article: Poaching Taking Heavy Toll on Elephants for their 'White Gold'

members of criminal networks, armed and equipped with thousands of dollars worth of weapons and communications devices. They’re supported by a network of surveillance assets, including human spies to locate and kill; and a network of processors and traffickers to quickly move the evidence into distribution channels.” Stopping them in the field has broad positive implications for people locally and internationally. “Poachers are directed by the network to engage in criminal activities to maximize revenue, much of which goes to support insurgencies, terrorist actions, and larger scale military conflict.” Combatting such a calculated organization requires dedication and determination.

The Kashmir World Foundation (KWF) is an organization that enables wildlife conservation and counter poaching with technology. KWF collaborates with global leaders in technology and wildlife conservation to design, develop, and apply unmanned autonomous systems, or drones, for conservation and counter-poaching of endangered species worldwide. Dr. Pandolfi details the mechanics behind poaching that makes KWF’s approach to combating it the most efficient one.

“Unlike insurgents or terrorists, criminal networks operate principally to make a profit. In much of the world where criminal networks were poaching endangered species, they were also trafficking in narcotics, weapons, nuclear materials, and humans. Engaging them in the field would stop the poaching and degrade their other operations.” This is KWF’s proactive approach: engaging poachers in the field to stop poaching before it happens.

Using drones for wildlife conservation is innovative in itself, but the Kashmir World Foundation takes it further. The design for their anti-poaching drones is unique, a Blended Wing Body (BWB) named the Eagle Ray.

Image from BWB Webinar with Mr. Mark Page and KwF

In a webinar about the BWB Aircraft with the Kashmir World Foundation, Mr. Mark Page, vice president of DZYNE Technologies and Senior Team Advisor at KWF, details the uniqueness of the BWB.

Page’s interest in UAVs has a long history. “My first interest in UAV’s came from testing a 17ft span radio-controlled BWB research model. The model demonstrated the stabilization of a BWB with low natural stability. This was part of a three-year, NASA-funded BWB research program at McDonnell Douglas. I managed that program with Dr. Bob Liebeck (now at Boeing). Later, I was designing race cars at Swift Engineering in San Clemente, California. I thought to myself, “the carbon work in racing is exquisite, we’ve got our own wind-tunnel, and I have Blended Wing expertise. Why not get into the UAV business? That led to creating the KillerBee BWB UAV family. From that point on, I was hooked on UAVs.”

“Since the establishment of DZYNE Technologies in 2012, we’ve flown UAVs ranging in size from 3lbs to 3,000 lbs. Some are tube-launched, catapult-launched, and net-recovered. Some use normal runways, and our ROTORwing VTOL UAV takes off and lands like a helicopter and then flies on the wing. Recently, our role in designing the Beta Technologies ALIA-250 eVTOL was revealed. This is a 6,000lb manned eVTOL aircraft designed for organ delivery, cargo delivery, and Urban-Air-Mobility (UAM).

With his interest in UAVs and ample experience to match, Page had a chance meeting with the Kashmir World Foundation through a mutual friend: Mr. Mark Moore, who is now at Uber Elevate. “I was then introduced to Princess Aliyah, the founder and Executive Director of KwF, heard her vision, saw her commitment, and I was hooked”, says Page.

The inspiration for the Eagle Ray came from Page’s BWB work many years ago, specifically his Killer Bee design, which caught the attention of Dr. Ronald Pandolfi, the Kashmir Robotics Director. From there, Pandolfi and his colleague Sean Bain, an Aerospace engineer for KwF, began sketching ideas, doing BWB experiments, and designed the foundation for Eagle Ray. Since then, the Eagle Ray has evolved, with Page’s addition of the latest airfoil technology and “other BWB secret sauce”, but it remains close to Pandolfi and Bain’s original design. The aircraft is named after the Eagle Ray, an elegant cousin of the shark which evolved into an all-wing design that glides undetectably through the ocean like the Eagle Ray aircraft will glide through the sky.

Eagle Ray

Image from Xray Mag and a study on spotted Eagle rays conducted by at Maria del Socorro González-Ramos at Mexico’s Instituto Politécnico Nacional

Dr. Pandolfi’s engagement in wildlife conservation and technology in flight began many years prior to the creation of Kashmir World Foundation. “As a boy, I enjoyed building and flying model aircrafts. In those days, sensors and computers did not exist for onboard control, so a pilot was needed on the ground passing commands to the aircraft via radio control”, he says. “I was aware of some of the early BWB aircraft such as the Stout Batwing in 1917 designed by William Bushnell Stout, grandfather of KwF senior advisor Dennis Bushnell. These aircraft demonstrated enhanced endurance and range, but they were difficult for pilots to control. I began working on unmanned BWB aircraft soon after flight control systems became available.”

“My interest in wildlife conservation, in particular with technology assisted counter poaching, began in the early 1990s when I met the director of the National Zoo to discuss the highest priority problems facing endangered species. I organized a group of scientists, engineers, and field operators -- the Technology Assisted Counter Poaching Network -- who were interested in protecting endangered species. Together we applied the most appropriate technologies for detecting, tracking, characterizing, and engaging people in the field. After meeting Princess Aliyah and understanding her grander strategy, we agreed that the TACP-network would become her technical advisors. Princess Aliyah appointed me as Chief Technology Officer for Kashmir Robotics with the mandate to create the world's most capable networks of unmanned aircraft, ground rovers, and sea gliders at a cost that would permit protection of endangered species over broad regions of habitat.”

“There are relatively few aircraft designers with the skills to design a high performance blended wing body aircraft. Among those, Mark Page is the best”, he says. And so, the team slowly came together, and the puzzle pieces fell into place.

The Blended Wing Body differs from a Tube-and-Wing in many ways. As the name states, BWBs have the wing blended with the body. There is no clear distinction between the body and the wings; they’re blended.

To understand how the BWB works, it’s important to understand how a typical plane works. All airplanes must balance four forces: weight is balanced by lift, and thrust must balance drag. Wings deflect the wind downward to make lift. Deflecting air for lift creates drag-due-to-Lift, while air friction with the plane’s surface creates so-called “parasite drag”. For best efficiency these two forms of drag are split 50/50. Engines are needed to overcome the drag with forward thrust. To get low drag, airplanes must be smooth with minimal surface area (low parasite drag) with a wide wingspan (low drag-due-to-lift).

Image from BWB webinar with Mr. Mark Page and KwF

Airplane efficiency is defined as the ratio of Lift to Drag (L/D). Higher L/D means the airplane requires less thrust from the engines, so it burns less fuel. The BWB achieves a very high L/D by reducing the surface area needed to hold cargo and make lift. Converting the body into a thick and wide airfoil allows the outer wing to be smaller in area, and the wide centerbody increases the total span reducing the drag-due-to-lift. The distribution of BWB’s mass is also beneficial because the cargo is spread along the span. At first this sounds like it would cause more weight, but the opposite happens. The wing is lighter when it’s directly underneath the weight it must carry.

Blending a traditional tube-and-wing into a frisbee-and-wing is how the BWB reduces drag and weight while offering a large payload volume inside. BWB’s also relocate the tails to the wingtips where they contribute to wing area and span. “On Blended-Wings we sweep the wingtips aft to serve as tails. The traditional elevator and ailerons become “elevons”, says Page.

“In terms of the anti-poaching mission, efficiency is the gift that keeps on giving. You can get more endurance than a tube-and wing with less structure and fewer controls. The large payload volume makes it easy to host the payloads needed for anti-poaching. The underside of the center-body has plenty of space to host multiple sensors side-by-side that need a downward field-of-view. A frisbee does this a lot better than a tube.”

In an interview, Page also mentions Dr. Pandolfi’s leadership in creating a diverse team. “I’ll say he has assembled respected experts and folks who are simply passionate about the cause. Ron is also a great researcher. He finds BWB papers from around the world that I had never seen. This shows his interest in opening the circle as wide as possible.” With a product that will counter poaching all over the world, it’s vital to have a diverse team of conservationists that understand the environment of their animals and the dynamics between the people that live near them as well as technologists who can translate those needs into specialized UAVs and AI programs.

This diverse team also includes college interns, students who are eager to apply their skills, whether it is in artificial intelligence or aerospace engineering, to KwF’s mission. Joey Licht, one of the interns who has been on the Eagle Ray team the longest, is an incoming sophomore computer science and math major at MIT. “Being a computer science and math major, I have no prior aerospace engineering experience. So, I have really enjoyed learning a completely new and interesting engineering skill”, Licht says. “Currently I have been tasked with optimizing the airfoil stack of the EagleRay, [but] I originally applied to work on the AI team. Work[ing] on the design of EagleRay has enabled me to see both the hardware and software that goes into these drones”.

“I think having interns helps lighten the load for the full time employees. Though in the beginning they were spending time getting us up to speed, now that we have our footing, between the five of us we can accomplish tasks for them that would have taken much longer without us. Also, in the long term, getting young people involved with the use of STEM to benefit society is very important and will have lasting effects, says Sean Sewell, another senior intern on the Eagle Ray team, who is an incoming Aerospace Engineering major at Stanford University. “My current role with the other interns is to try to optimize the design that Mark Page and Dr. Pandolfi has laid out [and] my favorite part has been learning how to use the OpenVSP software which allows us to model the drone and test how it would fly under certain conditions.

This is my first time using design software and it is so interesting to experiment with the drone using it.” Internships are a place for growth, and KwF is quick to challenge interns to explore the different dimensions of the mission. The team also includes Max Acebal, a rising sophomore at Columbia University studying Computer Engineering, Akhila Pasunoori, who is pursuing her Masters in Computer Engineering at George Mason, and Shreya Santhanagopalan, a Class of 2024 CS major at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

So what are the numbers that apply to the Eagle Ray design? For easy transportation by car or van, the gross weight is limited to 45 pounds. It’s battery powered for simplicity, low-cost, and silent. Eagle Ray can carry up to 15 lbs of payload for 4 hours, or fly twice as long with a smaller payload.

In a final statement, Page asserts, “It’s a new world. The new stuff is coming from small groups of passionate people. They’re doing it because the Big-Boys aren’t. So watch out, with Princess Aliyah driving this train, who knows how far it can go.”

Princess Aliyah with the Rangers and South African National Defense Force at Kruger National Park

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