SOURCE: University of Maryland, College Park

University of Maryland, College Park

June 11, 2013 18:32 ET

Terrapin Drone Gives Rhino Poachers Reason to Fear the Turtle

COLLEGE PARK, MD--(Marketwired - June 11, 2013) - Guided by computer modeling developed by a University of Maryland visiting scholar, the first unmanned aerial vehicle flights of their kind have successfully protected wild rhinoceros in a South African rhino poaching hot spot.

In response to a deadly epidemic of rhino killings, which are being slaughtered for the ivory in their horns, Tom Snitch of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) organized an all-volunteer expedition to conduct experimental anti-poaching surveillance near South Africa's Krueger National Park. Between May 25 and May 31 the team flew about 20 test flights of an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. The UAV, on loan from its Denver-based manufacturer Falcon UAV, was equipped with an infrared night vision camera and guided by a custom-designed computer program that predicts the movements of rhinos and poachers. The test flights were flawless, team members said.

This combined technology provides a new weapon in the war on wildlife poachers. UMD computer scientists have used the similar analytical software to detect explosives caches used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are working on other non-military applications of UAV flights, including wilderness rescue missions and surveillance of fast-moving crop diseases.

The first night flight of the UAV nicknamed "Terrapin One" took place on May 26 at the Olifant West section of the Balule Game Reserve near Krueger National Park. The team used its analytical model to locate a rhino and its calf in just a few minutes. Flying around the rhinos in a grid pattern, the UAV spotted a suspicious car close by and the team alerted the authorities immediately.

"We believe this is the first time that a UAV has been flown at night, with an infrared camera, where rhinos were identified from the air and a possible poaching event was successfully deterred," Snitch said. "As we say at the University of Maryland, 'Fear the Turtle.'"

Typically poachers kill a rhino in South Africa once every 11 hours, and the toll has been highest in and near Krueger National Park. But no rhinos were killed in the area during the weeklong field tests, which is highly unusual, Snitch said. "We think the locals knew we were there."

Next, Snitch, together with University of Maryland Computer Science Professor V.S. Subrahmanian, postdoctoral fellow Edoardo Serra, and colleagues will add data collected by local game wardens to the computer model and ground-truth their software, which incorporates game theory and other types of advanced programming and is designed to reduce poaching by predicting future changes in poachers' behavior as they react to this powerful new conservation tool.

Photos and videos from the field tests at Olifant West

A drone's eye view of wild rhinos and elephants at night, as seen by an infrared camera aboard the Falcon UAV nicknamed "Terrapin One." Footage courtesy of Falcon UAV.

Snitch describes the strategy of "Saving Rhinos with Math, Drones, and Satellites" in an April 11, 2013 talk at the College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences on the campus of the University of Maryland College Park.

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