Saving Africa’s endangered animals with drones

A UK humanitarian drone enterprise has teamed up with a start-up specialising in intelligent camera systems to save endangered animals in Africa.

UAVAid and Archangel Imaging have taken it upon themselves to take the fight against poaching in Africa into the air, by combining the former’s drone technology and the latter’s intelligent imaging system to identify and weed out suspicious systems in African parks and wildlife conservancies.

Founded by Daniel and James Ronen, UAVAid develops drones specifically optimised for international development and disaster response applications. The drones are uniquely designed as a multi-role platform, providing aid workers with robust aid delivery capability and a flexibility to respond to changes in local needs. They can also deliver packages of up to 10kg, 150km away, rapidly map remote regions, and can hover in the air for up to 6hours, providing aerial video surveillance for disaster assessment, border and infrastructure monitoring, fisheries protection, among many other tasks. The drones are also optimised for rapid deployment and operation in low infrastructure environments, making it ideally suited to support efforts in developing countries, areas of poor infrastructure and challenging environments.

Actually, UAVAid has already been using these drones in Africa since 2018, delivering medicines to hard-to-reach villages in places like Sierra Leone and Malawi.

“We realised that flying the drones on one-way trips was inefficient,” said James Ronen, adding that he started looking for tasks that drones could carry out on the way back from a delivery, so they wouldn’t return empty-handed once a consignment of vaccines had been dropped off.

James settled on deploying the drones for mapping and checking out the wildlife below — after all, there had already been some testing of aerial anti-poaching solutions in areas like South African national parks. But noble an idea as this was, he did not want to have to have the drone record hours and hours of live feed, whose watch could be tedious for a drone operator.

It was here that Archangel Imaging entered his mind; they are a UK start-up that is developing intelligent image recognition systems for cameras which allows them to be set to look for particular patterns. Potentially, these cameras could replace regular CCTV — no more need to record and watch everything; the camera notifies you only when it sees something relevant happening.

UAVAid drones have been deployed to African countries, including Malawi

The system is already being trialled in the UK by Network Rail. Archangel recently won a research initiative grant from the rail operator to see if the system could be used to monitor railway lines for trespassers and copper cable theft — and for people potentially contemplating suicide. This would be done with static cameras (UK aviation authorities are still not terribly keen to allow drone flights over railway infrastructure).

Installing the AI-equipped cameras on a drone would open up new opportunities, according to Jonathan Mist, CEO of Archangel Imaging, who noted that that acres of savannah tend not to have internet connectivity or electricity for running a network of static cameras.

“A drone-mounted camera system is perfect for a place where there is not much infrastructure. That’s the thing about wildlife parks — it’s not like elephants watch a lot of Netflix.”

Satellite images may work in the interim, admits Mist, but their images have a usually pixelated, low resolution quality, and would, in any case, only spot poaching after the fact.

“For every poacher they arrest, usually another escapes,” says Trang Tran, chief operating officer of Archangel Imaging. “But with the drone you can follow them.”

The two companies were brought together by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, a government research body, which provided the funding for the integration work. It is part of the Proof of Concept project running at Oxford’s Harwell Campus which is providing grant funding to encourage collaboration between companies across different disciplines. The scheme provides funding of up to £30,000 per project.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused some delay to launch, but the plan is to deploy and test the system by the end of this year. Archangel Imaging, which has so far funded itself through a combination of the grants and commercial work, is also planning to fund-raise later this year to help scale up the project. 

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