Endangered white rhinos will soon have UAS protection

By Patrick C. Miller | August 08, 2014

A New Hampshire UAS company will soon be helping to protect the endangered white rhino—the second largest land mammal on earth—from poachers in South Africa.

UAV-America of Lee, N.H., designed and built a multi-rotor UAV equipped with infrared thermal imaging and daylight cameras that will be used to patrol a South African game preserve. The company said its UAV patrols “quietly, safely and inconspicuously from above, transmitting streaming video to the pilot.”

Poachers kill the rhinos for their valuable and highly coveted horns, thought to contain magical medicinal properties. The white rhinos are in the Madikwe Conservancy, which holds more than 6,000 animals, including antelope, giraffes, impala, zebra and warthogs.

The conservancy was started by Vance Kershner, CEO of LabWare, a global software technology development company. Even though the preserve employs armed guards to protect the animals from poachers, keeping track of the rhinos is a challenge.

“You can patrol for miles and encounter nothing,” Kershner said.

Detecting poachers operating at night and relaying their location to authorities is even more difficult. That’s what prompted Kershner to come up with the idea for UAV patrols.

Kershner contacted his friend Jim Faunce of Faunce Engineering, Plainfield, N.J. Faunce, who’s provided technical assistance to the military, found a SteadiDrone multirotor product that had the heft and battery life to last 45 minutes in the air carrying a thermal imaging camera, daylight camera, antennae, a controller and transmitter.

Faunce worked with UAV-America which provided the design support to integrate the correct flight controller, gimbal mount, transmitter, cameras, thermal imaging and other components for the UAV. The company integrated all the pieces to work together smoothly.

“Owner Jim Cooper and his partner Matt Koestner picked up on what we were looking for right away and had very intelligent answers and suggestions,” says Faunce. “They were always very responsive.”

The design allows the user to patrol remotely from a long distance. It also can be programmed with a flight plan in advance. Specialized antennae prevent interference with the UAV’s GPS. Video streaming is provided by a 1.28 GHz frequency transmitter, which can transmit over long distances.

Poachers can be spotted by thermal imaging, even when hiding at night. The GPS allows pilots to give the exact coordinates of suspicious activity. In addition, the UAV can be used for aerial surveys and game counts which previously required renting a helicopter for $10,000 a day.

"We’re not committed to any one vendor or manufacturer,” Cooper said. “For the rhino project, we spent quite a bit of time researching, assembling and testing control and video streaming equipment to be sure they would meet mission requirements."

Testing has begun in New Hampshire and will move to New Jersey for some limited flying and then a field test in South Africa in August. The preserve will soon have an efficient, low-cost solution for aiding patrols in locating white rhino on the preserve.