Kai-Erik Jensen is a member of the Wadi Drone Program, a team of New York University Abu Dhabi students using commercial UAS technology and proprietary software for wildlife conservation and environmental protection. Increasing Human Potential recently had the opportunity to talk to Jensen and learn more about his projects and research.
You and your team have been working to monitor wildlife in Wadi Wurayah National Park as part of the Wadi Drone Program. Can you tell us more about the program and your work with UAS?
The Wadi Drone collects data in regions where deploying communications infrastructure would spoil the natural heritage or present a human risk to physically retrieving data. The Wadi Drone is a fixed-wing airplane with a 2.5-meter wingspan carrying a small communications payload that retrieves information from ground-based scientific measurement devices. The Wadi Drone serves the conservation efforts of the Emirates Wildlife Society, both by increasing the rate at which photographic data of wildlife and potential poachers can be analyzed by experts and by reducing the human risk associated with the current method of hiking to retrieve photos from remote camera traps. Wadi Drones further eliminate the need to employ an expensive helicopter to reach camera traps during the summer months when the heat makes it too dangerous to hike.
It’s our understanding you collaborated with the Emirates Wildlife Society and the country’s first national park, Wadi Wurayah National Park, on the development of the Wadi Drone. How did this partnership form? What drew you to work in this specific location?
We first looked at Dubai Expo 2020 to get a sense of the mission of the United Arab Emirates. After determining that conservation and sustainability were at the top of the government’s agenda for 2020, we would target our efforts in that realm. Wadi Wurayah, in particular, was showcased, so we reached out to them. They graciously allowed us to visit the park, and together we pinpointed several of the park’s pressing problems, finally determining where UAS would be the most sensible solution. We developed the idea for this project in careful consideration of where drones can and should exist to do good for the benefit of society.
The work you’ve been doing is part of a larger team comprised of four NYU Abu Dhabi students. How did you all come together to develop such a program? Did any of you have previous experience working with UAS before teaming up?
Three of the teammates were, and still are, roommates, while our fourth teammate, Ting-Che Lin, has been a close friend since we all began at university. However, none of us had any experience with UAS before teaming up, which is where our mentor, Matt Karau, proved instrumental in his guidance.
We understand that what makes these UAS so great for monitoring wildlife is that they enable a nonintrusive, cost-efficient and time-saving approach. Can you elaborate on how they are able to do this?
Currently, the park relies on a Black Hawk helicopter loaned by the UAE armed forces to collect images from Bushnell HD camera traps during blistering summer months, during the weeks where being outdoors is a health risk. This is an extremely costly method, plus a helicopter is not the most unintrusive [sic] of airborne creations. The UAS we developed is a fixed wing, so emits minimal sound and flies up to 200 meters above ground level, so as to be nearly undetectable below. It is built from inexpensive, commercially available technologies, so replacement parts and assembly are also inexpensive. The UAS saves time, because it can soar over the tricky terrain in a fraction of the time that it would take rangers to hike through gullies and up mountainsides. We’ve estimated that the rangers can collect camera trap data once a month with our system, whereas they currently collect data once every six months.
Based on your work, what specific benefits do UAS provide compared to their manned counterparts?
As mentioned above, the helicopter retrieval method is costly, both monetarily and in terms of manpower. Hiking, while traditional and unintrusive [sic], is slow compared to the UAS. We had considered several other solutions to the data retrieval problem, including building cellular towers, laying ground cables, linking the traps via a mesh network and using satellite transmission. These solutions were intrusive and expensive, intrusive, expensive and inefficient, and expensive, respectively, compared to a UAS solution.
Your team and the Wadi Drone recently took top honors at the national level of the United Arab Emirates Drones for Good competition. Do you mind telling us a bit about that journey and success?
The journey consumed 1,000+ man-hours from the team, led to many sleepless nights, 20-hour work days and bouts of crankiness. But it also led to a thorough knowledge of UAS and connection with the UAS community abroad and locally, deepened friendships, and expanded consciousness of what driven young people can learn and create with the proper mentorship and guidance. The competition itself was intense, and we were proud that the UAE government and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum recognized the virtue and utility of so called data mule — or, as we call it, data camel — UAS, by granting us top honors at the Drones for Good competition.
For those that don’t know, Drones for Good provides a space for the best, most practical ideas for using UAS technologies for the good of humanity. Do you have any advice for others looking to do similar UAS projects?
Seek a mentor. The UAS community online is vibrant and thriving, and everyone is willing to share their expertise and even their own time. Look for a UAS community in your own backyard and you will find plenty of helpful and passionate friends. Trust in your instincts, and when you imagine what a UAS can do, imagine first what a UAS should do in an ideal future.
What about plans for you and your team? Do you and your team have any exciting projects planned?
We are all sliding back into the undergraduate routine, but many organizations have expressed interest in collaborating with Wadi Drone, and we are doing our best to open source our technology once we have optimized the prototype. Check in on our website wadi.io and our Twitter @WadiDrone for updates.