Dec 11, 2014 | By Kira

Unmanned Aarial Vehicles (UAVs), most commonly referred to as drones, have been making headlines recently due to their controversial use by the U.S. Military. However, there is another war being waged that could significantly benefit from UAVs and 3D printing technology.

In South Africa's Kruger National Park, the country's first reserve, rhinos and elephants are meant to roam free. However, illegal poachers have been infiltrating the reserve, killing more than 600 rhinos in 2013, and more than one thousand across South Africa.

The prize for their efforts is the elusive rhino horn, currently one of the most valuable materials in the world, worth more than six times the value of gold in parts of China and Vietnam. In order to claim their trophy, poachers arrive armed, trained, and ready for the rigors of night fighting in the tough South African terrain. Most often, they are members or organized criminal networks. The park's rangers, on the other hand, have few resources to stop them.

"It's a warzone at this point," says Scott Williams, Director General of the Reserve Protection Agency. "Poachers are coming in, they are well-armed, most are coming with teams now and assault rifles, and they don't have law holding them back."

In response to this epidemic, Aliyah Pandolfi founded the Wildlife Conservation Unamanned Aerial Vehicle Challenge (wcUAVc). The worldwide challenge has invited 137 teams of students, hobbyists and engineers from 29 countries to design and build affordable, easy-to-use, high endurance drones to assist with counter-poaching in Kruger Park. Their ultimate goal is to stop poachers in their tracks, before any more animals can be harmed.

The teams, which include Rhino Shield from Virginia, Dutch UAS from the Netherlands, Ducted from South Africa, and hundreds of others, are using 3D printing to enhance their designs and make them more affordable. Currently, military UAVs are prohibitively expensive and require more personnel than a manned aircraft. The goal, however, is to reach a breakthrough in autonomy while driving costs down. To do this, the UAV challenge competitors will need all the creativity and innovation they can muster.

Image of the Dutch UAS team testing their aircraft in Limpopo, South Africa.

"3D printing allows us to design platforms that are very quick and easy to produce," says Michael Balazs of Team Rhinoshield. He adds that using smartphones is another advantage since they have a number of built-in sensors already, such as Bluetooth, wifi, LTE communications, and most importantly, the camera and processing power. "We've developed a 3D printed plane, we've developed the apps that run on the phone, we've got the sensors…all that remains is to bring it all together, put it up in the air, and make sure that it does what we hope it does."

That hope is to see poachers caught in their tracks. Drones allow rangers to cover a half a day's worth of walking withina matter of minutes. Using data collected from the UAV's camera and sensors, they will be able to detect how many poachers are in the park, where they are, what kinds of weapons they have, and even the best route to get to them before they get to the animals.

On top of seeing the rhino poaching numbers drop dramatically, Aliya Pandofli hopes to use this challenge as a way to motivate people to innovate and use technology for the greater good. "If we have the technology, we can use it to protect the world we live in."

Currenty, the wcUAVc is the largest and most distributed aircraft research effort in the world. They are working in collaboration with Kashmir Robotics, the technology and wildflife security division of Kashmire World Foundation (KwF), which acquired the Technology Assisted Counter Poaching Network (TACP). The network includes sciences and engineers with experience in counter-poaching via computational technologies and integrated robotics such as UAVs.

The Challenge has also set up an Indiegogo campaign in an effort to raise funds for their research and development efforts.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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