With regards to the poaching of endangered species, what are some of the challenges you have faced that have been solved through the use of technology?
Technology has been used for 30-40 years in conservation, but very few improvements have been made – mainly because of the limitations of battery capacity. We already use technology in monitoring and research with the use of camera equipment. The security aspect has been greatly advanced but in terms of anything related to animals, we are limited by battery life and cannot deploy the vast advances that technology has made available to us yet.
The use of drones is making headway as a commonly used device in wildlife conservation. What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of drones in conservation?
Drones are being deployed across a few areas in South Africa. Currently the cost of effective drones is too high for most rhino owners, however, the trend and speed of technological development, as well as the reduction in price as drones become more commercially available, looks very promising. I have no doubt that there will be good use for drones in conservation. Currently they are limited to observation around a relatively short radius of line of sight, and limited mostly to daytime operations with very little security application. The drones are used more in monitoring and animal surveillance.
What unique capabilities/functions would drones require if they were to be implemented in anti-poaching initiatives?
For a drone to be effective in anti-poaching initiatives they need to be able to see in the dark. I believe that thermal cameras are a vital tool. Effective drones need to have endurance and be able to stay in the air for more than 30-40 minutes. Endurance for me would start at a minimum of two hours and last as long as possible. Drones need to take off and land vertically, which limits the requirements for expensive runways and the damage that can occur when drones are forced to land on a conventional runway. Most importantly, the costs and ease of use have to be reduced substantially. Reserves would be able to afford a fully kitted drone for less than US$7000 (±R100 000) and can therefore begin to integrate the technology into their anti-poaching systems.
What are the setbacks of using drones in conservation?
There is very good technology out there, but the costs are largely prohibitive for the military grade equipment. Cost is definitely a rate limiting factor. The complexity of this technology is the manpower component which might mean employing additional people to operate the equipment. This might improve in time as their specific functionality gets better.
Have you seen significant changes in the conservation of wildlife since deploying drone technology?
Only small changes localised to areas that can afford the equipment or where this equipment has been donated. We are just impacting a fraction of the surface area – less than 1% – that we are going to have to cover. And the quality of that impact I believe is still in research and development stages. It requires the current trajectory to keep going as well as the cost trajectory to keep decreasing for us to reach 100% of the areas that we need to cover.
Aside from drones, are there any other trailblazing digital and technological trends on the rise? And how will they impact various industries?
The biggest challenge with all technology is power. If we can get around the power issue, then we have stacks of good technology that we can deploy in conservation. I am currently not aware of anything that is on the horizon with regards to power generation, but I think it’s the holy grail of most small digital devices. I do think there are people around the world working on it for commercial benefit and not just for conservation benefit.
In terms of technology beyond drones, cameras and radio equipment – there is work being done on different sensors like LiDAR, fibre optic cables and signatures. There is definitely thought going into it, but research and development can take years so we are not sure how long it will take to hit the ground.