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Mar 4, 2014 | Commentary

For the most part, the only unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones – that catch our attention are the ones that roam the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, hunting insurgents and/or terrorists. While these drones sour public opinion around the world, small fleets of drones have been helping developing countries confront major security problems.

At least one of these major security problems is poaching. Poachers in 35 different countries have killed more than 1,000 wildlife rangers over the past decade. High profits, coupled with a low risk of prosecution, have attracted scores of criminals to the illegal wildlife trade. In Hong Kong, elephant ivory has sold for as much as $1000 per kilogram. Rhino horn can be worth more than cocaine and is sold as a miracle cure for everything from cancer, to hangovers in countries such as Vietnam. The Western Black Rhino has already been declared extinct, with only a few surviving in captivity. In Chad, Central African Republic, and Zimbabwe, recent massacres of elephants have topped global headlines. Globally, poaching threatens hundreds of species, floods the illegal market with goods, and has created a security problem that many countries struggle greatly to deal with. Poachers have also become vastly more sophisticated, using night-vision goggles, advanced weaponry, and even helicopters to hunt animals.

Last year, with a $5 million Global Impact Award from Google, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) began exploring the use of drones to track endangered wildlife and poachers. The goal of the program was to develop a simple technology that could be easily maintained and operated by local forces, and so far it has been met with great success, particularly in Nepal. Since the drones first took flight in Nepal only two endangered rhinos have been lost. Prior to their introduction, one was killed each month.

Of course, these drones are nowhere near as sophisticated as those being used by the U.S. military and other developed countries. Instead, they use commercial rather than military drones which are available from websites like https://www.drdrone.ca/. They are launched either by hand or by using a small catapult, and are controlled remotely by operators on the ground. In South Africa, a team from the University of Maryland has also been testing autonomous drones that operate without human controllers. The team uses mathematical modelling to direct the areas drones search. The models are based on the locations of watering holes, trails, and other areas the animals frequent, as well as the time of day when poachers usually emerge. On one occasion, while tracking a rhino, an autonomous drone was able to detect an approaching vehicle and alert local authorities. Although the vehicle was filled with curious tourists rather than threatening poachers, it demonstrates that drones are capable of patrolling large territories and homing in on specific targets.

Similar conservation drones in Kenya are capable of covering 10,000 acres (40 square kilometres) in a single flight. Most carry multiple cameras, as well as thermal imaging for tracking poachers at night. In the long-term, drones will likely be used to supplement existing technologies such as GPS tagging. The tags will enable authorities to track the animals and determine their location, and the drones will be used to patrol said location and detect poachers. Researchers also hope to introduce software that can pull all the data together in real time, further streamlining the process.

For humans to perform this kind of work, massive commitments of time and personnel are required. It is not only challenging for developing countries to provide such resources, but they must also respond to numerous other security problems that demand much more urgency.

In short, drones may permit countries to take greater action on security problems such as poaching without diverting valuable resources and personnel from other, potentially more pressing, areas. Last year, Kenya announced that it would seek drones to track small arms smugglers. The U.S. has deployed drones along its borders since at least 2005, and in the UK they were used to patrol the skies over London during the 2012 Olympic Games.

However, with trial programs going well so far, an important future consideration is whether or not the rest of the security sector can cope with the influx of new suspects? Already, the judiciaries of many countries struggle to meet the demand for prosecution, while prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. The technology will be wasted if poaching suspects escape prosecution. In the long-term, then, drones will only be as effective as the rest of the security sector allows them to be.


Chris Bordeleau is a Project Manager with the Security Governance Group