Saturday, September 26, 2020

Drones to the rescue

Drones will soon be deployed in Botswana as part of anti-poaching efforts after UAV & Drone Solutions’ (UDS) Air Shepherd programme launched its operations in Botswana.

The illegal poaching market is estimated at $70 billion, with the most affected animals being elephants and rhinos, both killed ivory and horns. In the last decade, countries in Africa have intensified their monitoring and surveillance activities in a bid to curb poaching.

Botswana is usually signalled out by conservationist for its no-nonsense approach to dealing with poachers, going to an extent of implementing shoot to kill policy. The positive results have been there for most to see; hundreds of thousands of elephants have found refugee and sanctuary in the country, and rhinos have been transferred from hot spot countries to a relatively safe environment in Botswana.

With the highest concentration of elephants than anywhere else, and a growing number of rhinos, poachers have doubled down on their efforts and have shown no intention of staying away from Botswana, forcing officials to turn to modern technology to combat poaching.

UDS in alliance with the University of South Carolina’s (USC’s) Artificial Intelligence (AI) department have developed a poacher detection program called SPOT ÔÇö Systematic Poacher detector, capable of spotting poachers in less than half a second. This new technology will be implemented to assist all Air Shepherd teams moving forward.

“SPOT will ease the burden on those using drones for anti-poaching by automatically detecting people and animals in infrared imagery in near real-time,” said lead author Bondi.

Air Shepherd, originally developed by the Lindbergh Foundation in conjunction with South Africa-based UDS, has flown in multiple African countries, including South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe and now Botswana. The Lindbergh Foundation then transferred ownership of Air Shepherd to UDS.

“With more than 30,000 flight hours, Air Shepherd drone teams are pushing the boundaries of drone technology by flying 25 km beyond the line of sight and at nightÔÇöwhen poachers operate,” UDS said.

The program uses intelligence from multiple sources while infrared-capable drones fly silently. Previously, poachers were spotted on the ground by an Air Shepherd team member monitoring infrared camera footage from the drones all night, which can cause fatigue. The SPOT program will remove that challenge from the equation by automatically detecting poachers. Rangers are then sent to intercept them.

UDS said Air Shepherd drones offer more protection for rangers who, while patrolling at night, are exposed to a high level of danger from armed poachers and wild animals. It has been revealed that some poachers are former military men, posing more risks for wildlife officials.

Air Shepherd’s experience on the ground has shown that when they are flying drones, poaching stops, the company said.

The use of drones to assist in anti-poaching activities is not new, however it is engulfed by controversy. Isaac Kgosi, the ex-DIS director general, is embroiled in an unravelling scandal after he diverted funds meant for building fuel storages to purchase drones, citing poaching as his top priority and an imminent national security risk.

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