Dear Colleagues,

There is nothing quite like spending time in the African bush for one of life’s truly enjoyable experiences – watching animals thrive in their native habitat -  such as rhinos, giraffes, elephants and gemsbok ambling around. Early morning with sunrise and late evening are particularly special times. However, there is a growing danger that for future generations this will no longer be around because of poaching’s rapid growth.

Poaching is Destroying African Wildlife
A staggering 20,000 to 30,000 elephants are killed illegally every year for ivory. This trade is skyrocketing as demand goes through the roof. Last year (2013) in one country alone (South Africa) over 1000 rhinos were killed for their horns.

Crushed rhino horn sells for $10,000 to $15,000 for a kg. Many Asian cultures (e.g. Vietnam) believe implicitly that these body parts will cure problems such as cancer, impotence and mental illness. Needless to say; there is absolutely no evidence to justify these claims. However it is in the interest of the merchants of death to promote these myths to raise demand for their dubious trade. Naturally, the way to stop poaching is to choke off the demand for ivory and other animal body parts by educating people. But this is particularly hard.

Other illegal trade is in illegally caught fish and harvested timber from old irreplaceable forests; but poaching is on a particular strong growth trajectory.

The Usual Approach
The usual approaches to combating the poaching in these wild life reserves is the use of trackers and the use of anti-poaching patrols. It is very hard to locate and catch the poachers who often have an intimate knowledge of the terrain. Often, when the poachers are indeed caught, there is a serious fire-fight resulting in injury and death to those forming part of the patrols – the ‘good guys’. So it is all particularly challenging.

There are some more sophisticated approaches to help with detection – all of which offer varying degrees of success - such as ground sensors and RFID.

However, engineering science (or more particular – aeronautical engineering) has come up with a particularly innovative solution using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or ‘drones’ which offer some significant improvements in detection.

The Unmanned Flying Poacher Catcher
UAVs fitted with day and night cameras and thermal imaging sensors can detect poachers and report to base thus allowing an anti-poaching patrol to be dispatched immediately. These silent battery-powered UAVs can stay aloft for at least an hour or two and have a range of 10kms.  Cost of these UAVs is up to $20,000 but this is rapidly falling in cost. Initial use has been for wild life conservation in Namibia with success.

Entrepreneurs Go Aloft!
This is a great opportunity for highly skilled and imaginative engineering entrepreneurs to get involved. These UAVs consist of highly sophisticated systems comprising hardware/software and need to be linked into an overall monitoring system (presumably available from the web allowing wider access and monitoring).

Think of all the additional systems one can build into a great solution to catch the poachers.

Thanks to a well researched article by Chris McManes of the IEEE.

With all these new technologies and approaches, one should remember George Santayana's remarks:The wisest mind has something yet to learn.

Yours in engineering learning,

Steve