Hey, hardware hackers. There’s just a couple of weeks left to get your entries in for the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge (wcUAVc) and win not just an all-expenses paid trip to the Kruger Park (from wherever you are in the world) plus R650 000 in prize money, but also to see an unmanned drone of your own design put to the test in the fight against rhino poachers.

“We’ve had entries from 27 countries on six continents,” says Scott “LB” Williams, one of the main organisers of the competition, “We haven’t had any entries from Antarctica yet, which I thought we might. There’s a lot of bored scientists down there.”

LB is the director general of the Reserve Protection Agency, a Public Benefit Organisation which specialises in testing new methods and technology for solving conservation issues. LB himself is a veteran of the US Air Force, where he achieved the rank of Major and – after a career in tactics and operational management – was a liaison at the embassy in Pretoria. LB is now based at the RPA’s headquarters in Amakhala game reserve in the Eastern Cape.

The idea behind wcUAVc is to encourage teams of hackers and makers to build drone aircraft that can add something to the fight against rhino poaching. Despite huge awareness campaigns, 2013 was one of the worst on record in South Africa, with 1004 rhinos lost compared to 333 in 2010. And it’s not just rhino either: the president of France announced this morning that the country has crushed 3.5 tonnes of seized ivory ahead of a conference in London next week which is focussed on the illegal trade in endangered species. According to the organisers of World Elephant Day, more than 100 elephant are killed by poachers in Africa alone every day.

Designs entered into the competion must be capable of flying totally autonomously, ideally capable of vertical take-off and landing and meet current UAV safety standards and those required for radio communications. Critically, of course, they have to offer something currently unavailable or too expensive with current technology to rangers involved in anti-poaching activities.

“Will the final team go into commercial application? Probably not,” says LB, “What we’re looking for is low cost solutions and openware. It’s a fact that conservation groups don’t have much money to work with, and commercial drone technology is still extremely expensive and difficult to modify to the exact specifications rangers need.”

An RPA tester tries out a UAV design.
An RPA tester tries out a UAV design.

LB says that he doesn’t expect one team to come up with a perfect drone design that will be deployed in every preservation effort across the continent. For one thing, Kruger rangers keep the exact technology they work with now, and that the drones would have to interact with, a closely guarded secret. SANParks staff, for example, regularly parse news sites and politely request that journalists remove details from stories that might give criminals a heads-up on countermeasures.

“The main thing is that we’ve got a lot of very technical people involved,” LB explains, “There’s a lot of smart people out there and we know that we’re missing something. This is an opportunity to find that one thing we’re taking for granted.”

While there’s no formal stipulation in the rules that all entries must be open source/open hardware designs, there’s also no rights grab on ideas submitted in the small print either. It’s hoped that technologists will come together in the spirit of saving rhinos rather than purely for the prize.

The challenge itself was launched last October, and I’ll be honest – we didn’t cover it at the time because I was extremely sceptical about it. In the same month, rangers at Kruger National Park put out a press release saying that they was inundated with offers of high-tech machines from well-meaning poacher haters, but had to call in the CSIR to help evaluate them since they simply didn’t have time to work out what might be useful or cost-effective by themselves.

“I get around 300 offers of help a week,” LB says, “So I can only begin to imagine what those guys get.”

The UAV competition was set up by a Princess Aliyah, descendent of a Kashmir royal family on the India/Pakistan border. The fact that Aliyah is also the CEO of Kashmir-Robotics, and that the UAV competition got the company featured on Wired, while SANParks never mentioned it in a media release. It all seemed a little bit too good to be true. Wildlife activists I spoke also raised concerns about the usefulness of drones in anti-poaching activities – short flight times means they struggle with general patrol missions rather than moving to a specific target – and that the amount of money being offered could pay for a lot of more traditional conservation work.

I tried to verify the competition’s authenticity with SANParks, which was listed as a partner organisation, and got no reply. So the story didn’t get filed. A month later, a few friends of mine mentioned that they were entering it and had been in touch with the organisers and employees at Kruger. Then some more. Then Christmas happened.

Having finally got hold of both the organisers and Colonel Jooste, who heads up the anti-poaching efforts at Kruger, it turns out that my cynicism was unfounded.

“We’re not directly involved with or associated with the competition,” says Colonel Jooste explained, “But we do support it because there a real chance for some innovation… [For example] one issue with drones at the moment is that the bush is very thick, so improving sensors would be of benefit.”

Other issues that are highlighted as aims for the competition designs include making the drones portable, and the ability to recharge and recover them in the bush at night. Only one design will be trialled at Kruger, however, and the final rounds of the competition leading up to that will be held at Amakhala. That’s a decision LB says that he agrees with.

“Kruger is a combat zone, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that you don’t test new ideas in a combat zone.”

One important issue that has been in the spotlight recently, following the sale of a $350 000 (R3.5m) license to an American hunter to shoot an endangered black rhino, is the question of whether or not introducing controlled hunting and trading in endangered wildlife would sate market demand and reduce the impetus for hunting. I asked LB whether or not, given the terrible figures from last year (and 84 more animals lost this year) legalisation was something he might support.

“Legalising the trade in rhino horn isn’t going to stop people poaching elephants in Kenya,” he replied, “Rhino is the issue in South Africa because we have more compared to other places, but poachers work all over the continent regardless of laws. Lions are in danger in some places, elephant in others, and the crime syndicates won’t stop just because there are legal alternatives. There’s too much money to be made. The debate around legalisation will go on, but regardless, we have to figure out better ways to protect our species.”

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.