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Drone Surveillance May be Next Step in Africa's Wildlife Conservation Plan [VIDEO]

Jan 22, 2014 12:32 PM EST

Wildlife conservation is usually not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of drones flying overhead. The unmanned aerial vehicles have garnered a poor reputation amid their role in bombing and spying campaigns around the world. But Airware, a California-based tech company is looking to change that, and perhaps give drones a better name.

Airware specializes in the development of autopilots for unmanned aircraft systems. Recently, a team of Airware engineers traveled to Kenya to field test a drone designed to protect rhinos from the threat of poaching.

"In addition to our work developing the next-generation autopilot platform, we're working on a project that our team cares a lot about - building a drone for conservation," Airware CEO Jonathan Downey said in a statement. 

In collaboration with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya, Airware has begun testing a drone surveillance system that it says will enable park rangers to monitor wildlife and be alerted to the presence of poachers.

The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa. But even in a designated sanctuary, rhinos are not safe from poachers. In 2013 alone, 50 rhinos were killed within Ol Pejeta.

Airware's "Aerial Ranger" project is designed specifically to observe, track and protect wildlife by delivering video and thermal imaging feeds to teams on the ground, Ol Pejeta Conservancy said in a statement.

The Aerial Ranger drone is designed so that it can be piloted by someone with minimal technical knowledge and training.

"They simply click a spot on a 'Google Earth' style map, and select the 'fly here' or 'point camera here' option. In the same menu is a 'return home' button, which, when clicked, will send the drone back to its launch point without any further instruction," the Ol Pejeta Conservancy said. "When it has reached its landing spot, it deploys its parachute and floats elegantly to the ground."

Further testing and modifications must be done before the Aerial Ranger is in operation in Kenya, but the initial field test was positive, Airware said in a statement, noting that their prototype was able to perform in and withstand Kenya's rugged landscape and that it proved to work effectively within the conservancy's limited infrastructure.

"It surpassed all of our expectations. We still have more development to do but we're extremely encouraged and quite proud to be pioneering drones that can preserve some of our planet's most threatened species," Downey said.

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