“There are many cheaper and/or heavier LiDARs, the magic was to find a high performance LIDAR at a good price for the size/weight requirements that actually works for our airframe. Lightware LiDAR was the only company that ticked all these boxes.”
– Robert Miller, Founder, The Eye Above
South Africa has by far the largest population of Rhinos in the world and is an incredibly important country for Rhino conservation. The Kruger National Park has consistently suffered heavy poaching losses. And despite extra protection measures, the impact of such intense poaching has caused Kruger’s Rhino population to drop by 60% since 2013. In response , The Eye Above, an NPO has taken a special interest in addressing this problem.
Starting with a private game reserve bordering onto the Kruger National Park that runs a black Rhino breeding program. The Eye Above is currently in the prototyping and testing phase for the development and launch of a fleet of drones – specifically designed to assist game rangers on the ground with detecting poachers and poaching activity – before an animal is killed.
For this project to be successful, there were several specific challenges. Firstly the terrain. The drones that the Eye Above have designed have to operate in some of the harshest conditions on earth – the South African bushveld. It’s full of trees, hills, rocks, animals, dust and is subject to quick temperature changes. And then these drones need to cover a huge amount of territory, which requires long autonomous flights, all whilst being as quiet as possible so as not to disturb the animals or alert would-be poachers. Then you have to consider the skillset on the ground – the people who will be working with the drones directly – the game rangers. These are not skilled drone pilots or operators. And they do not need to be. Then of course, consideration has to be given to the ongoing maintenance of the drones and the requirement for spares.
When building their drones the Eye Above had to keep the following considerations in mind:
The drone would:
The solution was to design a v-tol drone from scratch that is optimized for surveillance and designed to fly autonomously, with systems that work within the airframe design. A key system requirement upfront was that the team would need to know exactly where the drone is at any one time. As there are mountains, power lines, trees to fly into and the temperature changes really quickly (which means the barometer could fail), you risk not actually knowing where you are above the ground. It was thus determined that the drone needed to have a LIDAR with altimeter capabilities onboard. Also the drone needs to know when it’s coming within 100 meters of the ground, needs to know exactly where it is relative to the ground and the drone must have terrain following capabilities.
To address this, the Eye Above is using the Lightware LW20, which is a small form LiDAR with a 100 meter range, in an IP67 enclosure. It is the perfect choice as it is lightweight (just 20 grams), small in size and has low power consumption all of which are critical to ensuring the objective of long range flight. It is being used on the drone for both “sense and avoid”, altimeter and terrain following capabilities. This drone autopilot is running a PixHawk Cube -Ardupilot stack. The only customisation that was applied to the LiDAR was the installation of a sapphire glass lens in front of the LiDAR optics – this protector guards against flying debris and stones on takeoff and landing. A Nighthawk EO/IR stabilized camera, will afford each drone powerful thermal observation alongside visual imagery. With this valuable payload you don’t want to risk losing drones to system failure or by being shot at by poachers. So the drone has been designed to land itself even when damaged. Onboard power is delivered through two independent battery systems; one powers the motors and most of the flight system, the other is a reserve battery powering the autopilot and control systems including the LiDAR.
The drone has been designed to self-diagnose, communicate with a ranger on the ground and return to base to take on fresh batteries. The drone transmits safety signals – to guard against any possible risk of injury on autonomous takeoff and landing when the battery is replaced. The drone has been designed to travel at 60km/hr (37mi/hr) and cover a range of 2 kms (1.4mi), with a battery life of about 6 hours. It uses a standard fiberglass structure, with an organic honeycomb structure inside, which is easy to patch in the field when damaged. The two meter airframe weighs only 1,2kgs (2.6lbs) and is engineered for harsh conditions. Designed specifically for cheap maintenance – it is totally modular so that if it crashes, the ranger could replace affected pieces with ease.
Ultimately The Eye Above plan on rolling out a fleet of drones to be leased to a nature reserve that is experiencing animal poaching problems. Each drone will operate from a base near a ranger station. Rangers will be trained to manage these drones as an anti-poaching drone fleet and on any associated drone maintenance.
Whilst this project was started specifically to address the Rhino- poaching problem in Africa, as the project progressed it has created awareness of how this drone fleet could be used in multiple applications – to assist in the fight against all kinds of wildlife crime. You could say Rhino conservation gave the Eye Above project the “motivation” – but now the team is looking at “wildlife crime” more broadly – further applications are being explored around marine conservation (lobster & abalone poaching), sea rescue and fire fighting.