The Next generation

Conservation Trust Namibia

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The specialized equipment, required for this purpose, comes from different corners of the globe - Europe, America and the Far East. Slabbert's research led him to source the best, most affordable equipment for the job. Space technology flight frames, technologically advanced radio systems, GPS tracking systems, sophisticated autopilot and flight stability systems, and thermal imaging cameras are just some of the components comprising these unmanned aerial vehicles. Integration of all these parts will takes place on Namibian soil.

The UAV systems will come in two versions - one with a four meter wingspan, propelled by a nifty, yet quiet petrol engine; the other with a six meter wingspan.

The larger of the two versions will have an endurance of eight to ten hours airborne and can cruise as slowly as 50km/h when loitering is required, or accelerate to an impressive 160km/h. But what makes these units unique is the range in which they can operate. The advanced radio systems allow these units to operate in an 80km radius from base station," says Slabbert.

To put this into perspective, a UAV can take off from a soccer pitch in Windhoek, be in Okahandja airspace in less than half an hour, and deliver video evidence on the water level of the Von Bach dam back to Windhoek in less than an hour. 

In the alternative, waypoints could be set for the aircraft to patrol an area of over 20,000 square kilometers, with no human intervention required after take-off.

Operators can simply monitor the video feed sent back from the UAV on a monitor. Once a potential threat or problem is detected, the flight operator can flick a switch to engage the aircraft's loitering mode. In this mode, the UAV slows down and circles the area to be monitored - on-board cameras not only provide live feedback from the ground, but record everything for later potential use in prosecution. 

Once all the waypoints have been flown, or a return-to-home parameter has been breached, the aircraft will make its own way home and land itself - likely some eight to ten hours after take-off.

Eagle eyes in the sky

Another indispensable feature of these UAV's is that they are equipped with two cameras, both capable of rotating and tracking a target or moving object. The daylight camera delivers crisp high resolution video to the base station in bright daylight and low light conditions.  

The second camera employs low military specification forward-looking thermal imaging.  This camera can detect a heat signature 2.4 kilometers from the aircraft on a pitch black night. Once the operator detects the heat signature, flight control can be switched from autopilot to manual flight, allowing the operator to do a closer inspection. From a distance of around 800 meters, the operator will be able to discern whether the object is an antelope, rhino or person. Flying even closer, at 600 metres from target, the operator will be able to identify the person, and whether they're armed or not. All this from a height of 1000 feet in the air in the middle of the night.

This facility allows the flight controller to decide instantly if this person is legitimately in that area or not. If not, the GPS coordinates can be radioed to a team on the ground who can dispatch to the exact area where the perpetrator hides.

Due to the aircraft's ability to loiter, upon arrival, the team on the ground can receive further instructions from the eyes in the sky. For example, fifty meters straight ahead, a little left, behind the rock... And because the cameras pick up your heat signature, you simply cannot hide at night.

Slabbert believes this technology, once deployed, is going to be a game changer. The probability of getting caught in the bush is going to make poaching or even assisting in poaching a highly undesirable job. The risk of begin jailed for a long time is very high. Henri appeals to the judicial system: "Please review the penalties for poaching and assisting syndicates who poach. The message needs to be very clear: "Leave our rhino and elephants alone, or society will not see you for many, many years to come.""

Another attractive aspect of this approach is the cost. The deployment of a single helicopter costs N$8,000 per hour in the air. This very same amount will keep a UAV deployed in the air for 62 days.