A Waikato drone company is using its expertise in aerial robotics to help save an endangered species.
At a glance
What do the surfie town of Raglan and rhino have in common?
More than you might think.
Raglan is the base for rhino conservation charity Tusk and Horn Wildlife Trust. It is also home to industrial drone company Aeronavics.
These two very different worlds collided when Tusk and Horn founder Sarah Jones returned from South Africa and approached Aeronavics for help.
On that trip Sarah had met wildlife vet Dr William Fowlds, who is renowned for his work saving poached rhino from certain death. She witnessed how he used a drone to locate one of the critically endangered animals. Drone technology could be extremely useful for conservation work, particularly if it could provide night vision to support security teams in patrolling reserves, William told her. But this drone didn’t have that capability, and resources were limited.
“When Sarah contacted us we instantly wanted to help,” says Aeronavics Director Linda Bulk. She and Co-Director Rob Brouwer were deeply moved by the gruesome imagery Sarah showed them of rhino lying in pools of their own blood after having their horns hacked off by poachers.
Rhino horn is trafficked to Asia where it is erroneously believed to have healing powers. There are thought to be less than 25,000 rhino left in the world, and if nothing changes the species could become extinct in as little as 20 years.
It took 18 months to pull off, but in July Linda and Aeronavics Flight Engineer Hadley Boks-Wilson took their ‘Rhino Bavi’ prototype conservation drone to South Africa for testing. It is a quad rotor model which can fly for about 45 minutes and withstand the high winds common in the region where it will be deployed. It can comfortably fly several kilometres without losing contact with the radio and video controls, and carries normal and thermal cameras side-by-side, Linda says.
“It’s designed specifically to help the anti-poaching units with security, to keep a night view eye in the sky,” she says. “It’s also being used to find and film the rhino.”
William Fowlds showed Linda and Hadley a prime example of how drones can help. He took them on a ‘rhino procedure’, whereby conservationists dehorn rhino in the hope there will be less incentive for poachers to strike.
“They were darting the rhino, and they bolted off all in different directions. It’s really quite dangerous because they need monitoring as the sedation sets in.”
Instantly the team had a drone in the air to track the animals.
Unlike the poachers’ brutal axe attacks dehorning doesn’t hurt the rhino, but the procedure still brought Linda to tears. “It was heart-wrenching to see this magnificent creature lying helplessly on the ground, sedated but aware, as his pride and glory was sawn off his head. You can just imagine his terror as the noise of a chainsaw is cutting into his horn just inches away from his face.
“It’s just so sad it’s necessary.”
Linda and Hadley spent a week working with and training the anti-poaching unit (APU) of Amakhala, the Fowlds’ family game reserve. The next steps are to implement improvements to the prototype and work out how to deploy the technology on a wider scale. Funding will also be a challenge, as the drones cost around $20,000 each.
“The system we delivered is much more powerful and fit for purpose than smaller, cheaper mass-market drones, but this comes at a cost,” Linda says.
While Aeronavics’ work on the Rhino Bavi is pro bono, it crosses over nicely into its wider drone infrastructure research and development programme. Long term, Aeronavics’ plan is to develop systems that are remotely operated and that live in the field, performing regular monitoring and data collection tasks.
The applications for the technology are endless, from capturing critical data for inspecting power lines to pest control, environmental management and precision agriculture practices. The company’s discussions with large-scale farmers, regional development groups and power companies are now well progressed, Linda says.
“In all of these areas, what we’re trying to achieve is a larger community,” she says. “You can just imagine, once you’ve got these installations in the field, say there’s a couple of drones and they live in hangars on a range of farms in a certain area, this becomes an infrastructure that can be used for multiple purposes.”
Meanwhile Aeronavics is pursing commercial opportunities such as recent orders from Australian mining giant BHP Billiton and the US Navy.
Aeronavics couldn’t have accomplished its goals without Callaghan Innovation’s assistance, Linda says. “We’ve been hugely supported by you guys.
“We have a strong development focus, because we believe in the strategy of focusing on future technologies that can solve some of the bigger problems facing the world today - such as environmental management, climate change, infrastructure monitoring and precision agriculture practices. We have an ‘over-the-horizon’ approach which, so far, is paying off.”
Callaghan Innovation’s Business Innovation Adviser for Transport and Logistics, Nick Brewer, says the agency and its predecessors have worked with Aeronavics for the past six years, helping with funding for a number of projects aimed at improving drone capability.
“The early years were concentrated on the platform performance, with latter years more about the integration of specialised role-equipment, sensors and the analysis of the data received,” he says.
Callaghan Innovation has also helped Aeronavics form valuable networks with other associated companies and suppliers, and the business has just been awarded two Student Grants to cover a busy summer period coming up, Nick says.
Updated: 4 October 2018