When the World Wildlife Fund selected Chris Miser, CEO of Falcon Unmanned, to help it combat poaching in southwest Africa, it got much more than an engineer with a desirable technology. It got a man committed to helping protect wildlife.
“We enjoy this mission and enjoy being associated with WWF,” Miser said. “This is a noble cause and well worth fighting for.”
WWF chose Miser’s company to provide unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for its anti-poaching and wildlife conservation efforts in Namibia. The UAVs — both fixed-wing and hovercraft — are the latest technological tool in the fight against illegal wildlife trade, estimated to be an $8-10 billion a year business.
Other technologies include ground-based video surveillance, wildlife tracking devices — including RFID — ground sensors and Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool software.
The UAVs, outfitted with day and night cameras and thermal imaging sensors, help park rangers find and detect poachers, animals and a vehicle’s hot engine in real time. An enforcement team can then be dispatched to those spots before animals are slaughtered.
“To be able to deploy the aircraft effectively, you need to know what’s going on on the ground,” Miser said. “You can’t do anything in the air to a poacher who’s on the ground. You need people or sensors on the ground to make that system work effectively. So at Falcon Unmanned, we deal with unmanned technologies, not just aircraft. We’re working on ground sensors that will more effectively help them deploy the aircraft.”
Each of Falcon’s UAVs cost about $20,000, including cameras and other equipment. They are silent and battery powered, can stay airborne for 90 minutes and have a range of more than six miles. A parachute or belly landing allows the UAV to land safely.
“It’s a very robust, versatile, low-cost system that has what we need right now,” said Crawford Allan, who as senior director of TRAFFIC North America is leading WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project.
TRAFFIC is the wildlife trade monitoring network that works “to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature.”
Allan and Miser were interviewed after speaking at an IEEE-USA-sponsored Congressional Robotics Caucus event, “Robots for Good,” on 17 June 2014 on Capitol Hill.
WWF is funding the project in Namibia with a $5 million Google Global Impact Award it received in 2012. The program is designed to support organizations that are using technology and innovative approaches to combat major problems.
Miser, Falcon’s lead engineer, has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Montana State University and gained experience developing and building UAVs while in the Air Force (2000-07). He served in Iraq, rose to the rank of captain and earned a master’s in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He said it took about a year to design his company’s UAVs.
“Everything’s a system; it’s hardware, software, electronics, firmware — everything,” Miser said. “The hardest part is the integration of a system. … There’s not one key technology that makes unmanned aerial vehicles work. It’s a lot of different technologies all working together.”
Technology used in wildlife protection is in its infancy.
“We’ve done our first phase, sort of a proof of concept,” Allan said. “We feel very confident now as we go forward into our next phase that we’re going to start seeing solid results.”
The Killing Goes On
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 elephants are poached each year in Africa for their ivory. According to a September 2014 report prepared by TRAFFIC and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), between 1998 and 2011 the illegal ivory trade increased by nearly 300 percent. IEEE-USA places a science and technology fellow at USAID each year.
In 2013 in South Africa alone, 1,004 rhinoceroses were killed, primarily for their horn. Six years prior, that number was 13. Wild tigers, whose skins are used for clothing and home décor and bones in wine and medications, have dwindled from 100,000 in 1900 to about 3,200 today.
Body parts from each of these animals are believed by many — particularly in Asian cultures — to have medicinal properties capable of curing or alleviating everything from cancer to arthritis to hernias to mental illness. Some parts are believed to enhance sexual prowess.
No evidence exists that any of these claims actually work; they are primarily myths kept alive by merchants and medicine men who make a small fortune selling to gullible customers.
“That’s the fight that needs to occur to really solve the problem — stopping the demand side,” Miser said. “We have to convince people that this is not medicine. This is an animal dying for no reason, and beautiful animals at that.”
Rhino horn is sold as, among other things, an all-purpose health tonic, a fever reducer and a cure for hallucinations. But it is composed entirely of keratin, a protein found in human hair and nails. Demand is particularly high in Vietnam. Poachers often cut off the horn while the animal is still alive.
Allan described people like Miser as an “engineer with a heart.”
“It gives you a sense of pride when you’re able to do a mission that is helping a helpless creature,” said Miser, who is based in Denver. “Those rhinos didn’t do anything besides do what they do naturally, which is to walk around and have a horn on their face. And just because someone believes that fingernails are medicine, they’re slaughtering them for no good reason. It’s just a horrible thing.
“So if there’s anything we can do to prevent that, or I can use my military skills to prevent that, then you’re damn right, I’m going to do everything in my power to prevent that. We see the problems that are over there, and we’ve developed new technologies just based on what we’ve seen, and how to help the wider problem of poaching using education and technology.”
In addition to the animals, park rangers also face danger. According to the Thin Green Line Foundation, about 800 rangers have been killed over the past 10 years by commercial poachers and armed militias. Many others have been maimed.
Money Fuels Other Crimes
Crushed rhino horn can sell for as much as $25,000 a pound on the black market. One tiger sold for parts can fetch as much as $50,000. Two male elephant tusks can weigh more than 250 pounds, and just one pound of ivory can bring $1,500. (Not all of the tusk is made of ivory.)
Because of the money that can be made selling these endangered animals, organized crime syndicates are largely behind the poaching.
Dr. Richard Carroll, vice president, WWF Africa/Madagascar Program, speaking during the October 2013 forum, “Protecting Threatened Wildlife in Africa with Technology and Training,” said wildlife crime in Africa is a major source of funding for insurgency, rebellion and terrorism.
“Adding the trade in illegal fish and timber,” Carroll said, “the wildlife trade would be the fourth-largest transnational crime in the world, just behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking.”
Demand is also fueled by consumer goods such as arts, crafts and jewelry. Ivory figurines are highly desirable gifts in Asia — especially in China — and ivory is also used to make chopsticks and hair ornaments.
“People don’t know that they’re killing animals whenever they buy that stuff,” Miser said. “A lot of it is education, and that will be the real way to stop this. But in the interim, technology solutions are available.”
Allan sees technology playing a key role in guarding earth’s beautiful creatures.
“There are human and wildlife solutions that, if done right, are cost-effective and can really help in protecting wildlife,” he said. “We shouldn’t be scared of technology. We just need to make sure we use it the right way — safely, securely and following the regulations.
“And done the right way with the right partners, I think we’re going to see a lot of success stories moving forward.”
Chris McManes is IEEE-USA's public relations manager.