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TeamAREND with their Hyperion project drone.

Jean Koster, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, is fighting a good fight. Koster leads TeamAREND, an international coalition of engineering students who are designing instrumented unmanned aircraft to combat rampant rhinoceros poaching in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. TeamAREND (“Aircraft for Rhino and Environmental Defense”; also Afrikaans for “eagle”) works across three continents and four languages, with teams at universities in Helsinki, Stuttgart and Pretoria, in addition to Koster’s UC Boulder crew and assistance from the National Institute of Science and Technology. The project was conceived to take part in this year’s global Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge.

Rhino horn, mythologized in many East Asian countries as a potent stimulant and aphrodisiac, has become something of a status symbol for the nouveau riche, going for more than twice the price of gold on the black market. It’s a $10 billion-a-year industry — the size of Apple’s App store — with a single horn bringing in between $300,000 and $400,000. The poaching in Kruger has increased along with this demand, doubling every year: In 2008, between 60 and 70 rhinos were poached; last year, that number had risen to over 1,000. At this rate Kruger’s estimated 30,000 rhinos will be all but extinguished in just a few years.

Koster also measures the cost in human terms. Poaching syndicates recruit from Mozambique, a country with an average per capita income of less than $400 and which shares a border with Kruger. Many recruits are trained Mozambican soldiers, armed with AK47s, grenades, chainsaws, GPS, night vision, and sometimes helicopters. Weapons are also secretly cached throughout the park. They amass in vehicles on the border and then enter Kruger by the hundreds. Kruger’s Rangers aren’t matched for these numbers, nor for the size of Kruger itself, which is the world’s largest game preserve and about the size of West Virginia. When the Rangers do confront poachers, Koster told me, it’s often violent; in Kruger, a Ranger dies in the line of fire on average every four days — in a war over a product no different from your fingernails.

Enter TeamAREND. Considering Kruger’s breadth and its harsh environment, the numbers, mobility and lethality of the poachers, and the size, temperament and patterns of movement of the rhinos themselves, drones are ideally suited to patrolling the preserve. And because of these same variables, TeamAREND aims to design a modular and flexible craft, capable of responding to the Rangers’ different needs as they arise. Koster says his team is considering the Pixhawk and APM 2.6 autopilots in part for these reasons.

The project also presents unique design challenges. For one, the drones must endure Kruger’s environment — dry, dusty and sweltering, with strong winds and hot rain. And the poaching syndicates now have the money to attract crack tech squads of their own: Koster says that hackers are actively trying to break into AREND’s plans, so he can’t speak about designs in detail, and their engineers work in a technological “black box” to minimize the risk of leaks.

The team recently launched a Kickstarter campaign. As of today, they’re a little over halfway there. If this story interests you, then definitely click here.