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Inventive idea of the day: drones to save rhinos

Posting in Technology
Every day, amid the flurry of product launches and announcements about the next big thing, a few items make us sit up, turn to our cubicle neighbor and say 'hey, this is kinda cool.'

In this daily series we'll highlight one inventive idea, business plan, approach to design, architecture or city planning. Sometimes they'll be wow items and other times they'll be a small effort that if implemented on a national, regional or even worldwide scale could make a big difference. 

Today, it's the about how one startup is finding new, demilitarized and valuable uses for drones. Specifically, how drones can be used in conservation.

Airware, a startup based in Newport, Calif., sent a team of engineers to Kenya to conduct field tests of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed to protect rhinos from the threat of poachers. Airware says the tests were successful and show that drones can be a viable tool for wildlife conservation. 

The drones (called the Aerial Ranger) used during the tests in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy were equipped with Airware's autopilot platform and control software, which is designed to act as a deterrent and surveillance tool. Real-time digital video and thermal imaging feeds of animals (and poachers) are sent to rangers on the ground using fixed and gimbal-mounted cameras, according to Airware. 

While the Airware software embedded in the drones are complex, they require minimal training to use, the company says. In practice, a ranger would configure a flight plans using a simple mapping interface and launch a flight that is autonomous. And using drones to survey vast areas of land is more efficient and cost effective than sending out rangers in off-road vehicles. 

But as the folks at Ol Pejeta Conservancy noted in a statement Tuesday, the drone is about more than catching the bad guys. The Aerial Ranger will help the conservancy's ecological monitoring department conduct its annual wildlife census, which in the past required 13 hours of light aircraft time at $220 an hour. The data that has been collected in the past is subject to a large degree of human error because counting in done in real time and with wide transects, the conservancy says. The drone can do the census in a day and record footage, which can be watched multiple times to ensure the numbers are accurate. 


Thumbnail photo: Flickr user Valentina Sorti

— By on January 14, 2014, 9:29 AM PST

Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure