Diceros bicornis
January 8, 2015

Protecting South African rhinos with space telescope technology

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A record-number of rhinos were killed by poachers in 2014, but the creatures could soon be getting a new ally in their fight for survival – the European Space Agency (ESA).

According to Reuters reports, at least 1,020 rhinos were killed in South Africa as of November, already surpassing the previous high of 1,004 that was set just one year beforehand. Experts say that the final tally is expected to hit at least 1,200, a nearly 400 percent increase since 2010.

As of February 2013, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that there were slightly more than 5,000 critically-endangered black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) and about 20,000 near-threatened white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) living in Africa. Now, a new technique that uses space telescope technology could help rangers protect these creatures.

Students from Cranfield University in the UK are using high-resolution imaging technology originally developed by the ESA for use in space telescopes, mounting it to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and using it to help rangers in their efforts to protect African rhinos.

“Our proposal intends to develop lightweight and autonomous UAVs for observing in two main sectors: wildlife conservation, and search and rescue,” said Idriss Sisaid, who along with fellow students Enrique Garcia Bourne and Edward Anastassacos won the ESA Technology Transfer Program Office’s 2014 Space Solutions University (S2UN) Challenge.

Using optical imaging and curved image field mapping technology patented by the European space organization, their Horus project was able to produce aerial imagery in real time, and at a lower cost than existing alternatives. Their technique, which is installed on UAVs, could monitor large areas and help rangers know where poachers are hunting rhinos and other animals.

“ESA patent 561 presented us with a platform technology to produce inherently high-quality, non-distorted and wide-angle images. When applied to UAVs, this allows far greater coverage and improved performance when compared to UAVs with more traditional cameras,” said Bourne.

The Horus project also allows for quicker responses to incidents, the agency explained. When emergency situations arise, the UAV can scan large areas and immediately provide response teams with detailed information which they can quickly act upon. Likewise, it provides constant coverage over vast swaths of land to continually combat poaching-related activities.

“In providing rangers and non-governmental organizations with this crucial monitoring ability at limited cost, Horus could boost effectiveness and efficiency,” the ESA said. “The team is now assessing how best to develop their idea... with the objective of turning it into a viable business.”

“Our success in ESA’s Challenge is the first step of the project,” said Anastassacos. “Continued development of the imaging system based on the ESA’s patent will bring us one step closer to the prototyping phase. We look forward to seeing our idea take flight.”

Their work could prove to be vital in what conservationists believe will be an important year ahead for the South African rhino species.

“2015 will be key, possibly the most significant yet in the battle to save the world's iconic animals,” Richard Thomas, spokesman for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, told Reuters. “If the resources now being directed at this fail to put a big dent in the poaching figures, we need to find out what went wrong and why and amend our approach.”

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