Robotic Technology to Preserve Wildlife: A Scenario

Updated: Sep 19

by Princess Aliyah Pandolfi

A new flying robotics challenge takes aim at the armed groups that are hunting the black rhino and other animals out of existence.

As dusk descends on the Kruger National Park in South Africa, a family of black rhinos moves quietly away from the water hole toward a resting place in the bush. They are among the last of their kind, the species having been hunted to near extinction, and this evening they are not alone. A group of men has entered Kruger from neighboring Mozambique. They come from a poor village, but they carry expensive weapons. Two men carry AK-47 assault rifles to shoot park rangers, one carries a high-caliber rifle to shoot rhinos, and one carries an ax to cut off the horn of the dying animal.

Traffickers in the criminal network pay a reasonable price for the equipment and information, but it will be well worth the effort if they can kill a rhino. The horn is one of the most valuable materials on Earth, worth more than six times the value of gold on the streets of Vietnam and China, where it is believed to have great medicinal power. Criminal networks profit from that superstition, while environmentalists race to educate potential consumers about the fallacy of rhino horn medicine.

The horns are made from a material called keratin, which is about the same as human fingernails. In fact, simply eating your own nails would provide more keratin than a typical dose of rhino horn. Perhaps in a few generations, the demand for rhino horn will decrease, but unless the poaching ends, the rhinos will be gone in just a few years.

Stopping the poachers has been a losing proposition. In Kruger National Park, which is 7,580 square miles (a little smaller than the state of New Jersey), poachers have been relatively free to operate, despite the constant presence of rangers on foot and in-ground vehicles. Poachers are supported by a modern and well-funded intelligence network that includes human sources, signals intercepts, and aerial surveillance.

More than a thousand rhinos were poached throughout South Africa between January and December 2013—a dramatic rise over the past few years. Kruger National Park, the first reserve in South Africa, is the main battleground for the world’s rhinos, where more than 600 were lost in 2013. Experts blame the dramatic increase in affluent populations in Asia, where rhino horn has become a fashionable commodity, selling for as much as $100,000 per kilogram. With the demand increasing, organized crime syndicates have moved into the business of wildlife exploitation, estimated at $19 billion in black-market trade in 2012.

The Poachers Approach The men travel on foot several miles into the park to a secluded area, where they will spend the day in hiding. With so few rhinos remaining, it can take several nights to cover the distance on the ground, and travel during daylight would be too risky. Poaching rhinos in South Africa is a severe crime, and a confrontation with rangers likely would turn into a dangerous gun battle. They are there to kill defenseless animals for profit, not engage in risky battles. They will take their time, approaching rhinos at night and hiding during the day, then escaping back into Mozambique under the darkness.

The following evening, the men proceed in earnest from their hidden camp. They received a coded text message via cell phone that rhinos had been spotted just a few miles from their location. Posing as tourists, spotters for the criminal network had provided timely and accurate intelligence. Travel on foot at night in Kruger can be slow, but the men are confident that they will have their kill. With better intelligence, weapons, and funding, the poachers have little fear of the rangers.

Fighting Technology with Technology Poachers and rangers are not the only people in Kruger. Tourists flood the area, hoping to get a glimpse of rhinos and elephants before they are gone. Permits are issued by the rangers along with RFID tags that enable the rangers to keep track of where visitors are in the park at all times. Rangers also carry RFID tags so their locations are accessible back at park headquarters. Leveraging advanced technologies provides hope for protecting the park’s resident species.

Enter aerial drones. In 2013, Kashmir Robotics sponsored a Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge (wcUAVc). The Challenge created a new class of aircraft with multimode sensing and onboard decision-making optimized for countering poaching in Kruger. Students, hobbyists, and academics worldwide formed teams to participate in the Challenge, not just for the $65,000 prize money but because they wanted to contribute to saving the rhino.

Kruger’s rangers had experimented with aircraft developed for other purposes, but affordable aircraft lacked the sensing, processing, and communications essential to the mission. On a battlefield, people are assumed to be combatants. Small aircraft can be deployed ahead of ground forces, alerting them to the presence of enemy soldiers. But in a park the size of Kruger, detecting poachers and planning engagements are complicated procedures.

Building on technologies developed for the smartphone industry, the Challenge teams integrated sensors, computers, and graphical processors into compact avionics. Drawing on revolutions in additive manufacturing, they compressed the time from concept to flight for prototype aircraft from years to days, and they decreased the cost for developing new small aircraft from millions to just a few thousand dollars.

Deploying the Drones Back in the ranger headquarters, an alert is received from one of the new UAVs that are providing surveillance over the remaining rhinos. Humans have been observed via thermal imaging sensors within five miles of the rhino family. The aircraft received responses from the rhinos' RFID tags, but the humans detected no response.