In a garage in Bethlehem, in the middle of South Africa, new technology is being worked on. The result is a plane that looks like something serious hobbyists would dedicate their time to. In fact, the original components are those of a radio-controlled polystyrene plane, which costs just a couple of hundred dollars. But with the addition of GPS, autopilot, HD imaging for the daytime and thermal imaging for the night, what has been produced is a highly effective drone or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) that can be used to find poachers in secluded areas – and fast! 

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It’s not necessarily what you’d imagine a drone to be like ... especially if you've seen images of military-grade drones. It may even elicit a smile of disbelief. But its tiny size is an advantage. It can be launched from anywhere – a road, a field, a clearing in a woodland – and then landed again in the same place, making it immediately deployable and highly flexible. 

“We saw so much money and time wasted in conservation programmes simply through inefficiency. We were convinced that we could come up with new, effective measures that would make a real difference”

The drones are useful in the daytime, but it's at night that they come into their own. They film and broadcast live imaging directly to those on the ground and can detect a lit cigarette even from a couple of kilometres away. The thermal imaging takes a little while to adjust your eye to, but almost immediately patterns become distinct ... a range of white dots shows the presence of an antelope herd, a single large block becomes a rhino and the long neck of a giraffe is instantly recognizable against the backdrop of trees. 

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A screenshot of the live thermal video stream captured from a SPOTS Air Ranger during an operation.

Conservation organisation SPOTS (Strategic Protection of Threatened Species) has been working on preventative measures to tackle the rhino-poaching problem in South Africa. Peter Milton, one of the founders, explains: “We saw so much money and time wasted in conservation programmes simply through inefficiency. We were convinced that we could come up with new, effective measures that would make a real difference.” These UAVs are the result.

You can’t hear them until they’re right above you – and even then, you can't see them at night unless they want to be seen. As a result, suspected poachers have no idea they've been spotted and their exact location exposed ... until it's too late. It’s not possible to hide after that. 

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The pilot views video that the UAV is transmitting through special goggles while manoeuvring the plane. This way he can go back and check if he spots anything.

People often ask how far the UAVs can fly and the answer is not that far: they rely on signals that need a clear line of sight with the instruments on the ground. But that doesn’t matter – as long as they can stay in the air for a little while. The idea is for the drones to be deployed in areas where poaching is suspected (following tip-offs or the discovery of tracks, for example). Like an anti-poaching team on the ground, it's unlikely that a drone would ever be sent out without some prior knowledge. But unlike a team of people on foot, the UAV has one huge speed advantage – with a 5km radius, it can quickly cover a vast amount of ground, and cut down on the human risk that anti-poaching units routinely face. If poachers are spotted, the drone can make itself highly visible, switching on a range of lights as it flies. Would-be poachers are likely to abandon their plans upon seeing an aerial vehicle skimming the treetops. It is technology that cannot be beaten by hiding. 

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Bringing the plane in to land on a bridge.

Does it actually work though? Lucian, the pilot, says, “I’ve been using it on farms in the Free State where stock theft is an issue. As it’s full moon I’ve just phoned to find out how many animals have gone missing and when I’m needed back to fly again. For the first time in many months not a single animal disappeared from any of those farms.”

So are drones the solution for saving rhinos? With conservation resources stretched thin, the South African courts swamped with cases and poachers often out on bail for many months, they may very well be. In the war against poachers, the best measures are preventative ones. After all, bringing a poacher to justice after the fact will not bring a poached rhino back to life. But with conservation drones acting like our eyes in the sky, the rhino may simply not be pursued in the first place.