In the span of less than two years, Joe Noci and his wife, Gisela, went from working in the aeronautical drone industry in South Africa to building conservation drones out of their home in Namibia. Their SurVoyeur drones, which the Nocis design and build from scratch, have proven to be effective anti-poaching tools. As a result, Joe now finds himself on the front lines of anti-poaching work in Namibia.
Protecting Nambia’s national parks is a daunting challenge. Conservation drones like the SurVoyeur have been touted as a useful and potentially transformative technology, especially for anti-poaching efforts. Noci is constantly testing and problematizing the usefulness of conservation drone technology in the context of the African landscape. His work will pave the way for the use of small drones for conservation work in the years to come.
The following is an abbreviated excerpt of the original in-depth interview:
Center for the Study of the Drone (Jason Gregg): When did you first become interested in using drones for conservation in Namibia?
Joe Noci: We started our UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) development about one and a half years after arriving in Namibia, around 2008, 2009. We had participated a number of times in the annual vulture-counting programs, where we flew annually around 15,000 km in a four-seater Cessna as spotters, trying to detect vulture nests in the tree tops in the nesting areas of the Namibian desert regions. On detection we would log the GPS position, and then when all the flying was done, we would return in 4×4 vehicles to each location, extend a long ladder to the top of the tree, climb and retrieve the vulture chick, weigh it, measure it, categorize it, tag it and return it to the nest.
This count is done annually and an active database is maintained that helps in the analysis of the effects of “progress”—roads, mines, et cetera—on the vulture population. However, the GPS position tagged in flight could be in error by many trees, and since many of the trees in the vicinity of the correct one may have a nest in its top, one was never sure of the actual tree you had to climb. This meant extending the heavy multisection ladder, some 20 meters tall, up against the tree, and climbing up between the vicious thorny branches, only to find no nest—wrong tree. So we developed a small UAV that we would launch at the site, viewing all the tree tops from on high, and seeing which tree we needed to climb.
And so the concept of using the UAV for observation in an anti-poaching program grew from this.
Center for the Study of the Drone: Do you consider yourself part of the DIY (do-it-yourself) drone movement and that plane to be a DIY plane?
Joe Noci: I suppose DIY means different things to different people. SurVoyeur is certainly DIY to me—I designed it and I manufacture it completely on my own. I have no employees building any part of it; I do it all. So production is limited to around six to eight a year, and the income from it covers its cost—we will never become rich from this!
It uses components purchased from model hobby shops. The composite parts are all made by myself, as well as all the molds and jigs. The autopilot and navigation system is designed by myself and manufactured for us by a production house in South Africa. All the autopilot and ground station software is created and written by my wife, Gisela.
I also believe that a successful system needs local support. It is no use having some American drone donated to an African country, for example, with no follow-on support, spares supply, et cetera. As the staff turnover is high in the national parks environment, new recruits will require training, and the cost of bringing the foreign company out again to train people most often exceeds the value of the UAV in the first place. In addition, since large proportions of the conservation efforts endure through generous donations by donor countries, the available cash for logistics support for the ensuing years after delivery is often an unknown, resulting in derelict systems after a few years.
Center for the Study of the Drone: How do you think relatively inexpensive DIY drones can impact the world of conservation, and what do you see as some of their limitations?
Joe Noci: I have had many a debate on this subject. There are many applications and situations where unmanned aircraft can positively benefit society, wildlife security, and conservation. However, by no stretch of the imagination are UAVs the silver bullet. In many cases UAVs are the square peg forced into the round hole. The application of a UAV is faddy, fun, exciting and trendy, and this often makes the UAV a problem in search of a solution. We have used UAVs extensively here in Namibia, in many applications and conditions, and there are many problems in application, as well as many successes.
The simple foamy UAV [made out of foam board] has its place. It is easily used by low-skilled people, requires little maintenance, is cheap—not inexpensive, there is a difference—and is easily applied in almost any terrain. By the same token, it cannot carry a payload capable of tracking poachers, it has very limited flight time, and is very susceptible to the elements. A more capable system requires a user that has some insight into its support and maintenance, more in depth flight and operational training, and some sort of logistics support or spare supply process in place.
In the poaching-ravaged parts of the world, the economies are not like the first world; conservation comes second to poverty and unemployment, conservation workers suffer poor remuneration and change jobs and posts often. So the supplied systems are more often than not in a state of disrepair and disuse due to lack of trained operators and spares.
In addition, the uninitiated user believes the UAV is a cheap alternative to hiring a fixed-wing plane and pilot, and flying reconnaissance. This will never be the case. The UAV is slower, has much less endurance, and has only one eye—the video camera—which has a very narrow field of view compared to that of the human eye. A spotter in a plane can see a square kilometer at a time at 200 meters above ground. Seventy percent of that area is in his/her peripheral vision. The spotter can easily and quickly move their head to any area of interest, lock eyes onto a target and the head is naturally stabilized. The eye’s peripheral vision is very sensitive to any movement, with the eye refocusing on that movement in an instant.
A video camera image from the UAV, as seen by the operator on the ground, will cover a ground area of at best of 200×200 meters, 1/25th of the area of the eye. It is like looking through a cardboard tube from an aircraft, and trying to spot an animal on the ground. It rarely works. When closely coupled with conservation or security operations, it can work. For example, ground staff need to maintain constant patrols of hotspots and keep contact with local people for any insight into poaching or pending poaching activities. The UAV can then effectively be used as an extension of the patrol activities, but rarely as a global “eye in the sky.”
There are other applications where the UAV is eminently suited: disaster relief. During the major rains some years ago in the north of Namibia, major areas were flooded and villages were cut off from supply and contact for weeks—UAVs are able to assess the seriousness of the situation and assist in the provision of pinpoint aid. The use of UAVs to assess the level of deforestation taking place in certain countries is also a very effective use. Flood and hurricane damage assessment are ideal applications for such systems, but their use is fraught with pitfalls in the legalities of flight in civilian airspace. As the public open-mindedness has not kept pace with the rapid advancement of these technologies, so have the world’s flight authorities and lawmakers been embarrassingly asleep on their laurels.
The use of UAVs for game counts is also often touted. We have attempted this in various ways, but it simply does not provide the same results and accuracy as does a fixed wing plane or a helicopter with human spotters. The poor field of view and the poor resolution of cheap video cameras all count against the process. In addition, the animals remain stationary and are well camouflaged, and therefore not seen. The UAV presence is small and quiet. From a plane or helicopter, the animals run out from under the bushes and trees and the movement is easy to spot and count.
Center for the Study of the Drone: In December 2013, you announced on your blog that the first Namibian pilot had completed training for the SurVoyeur MK-II. Can you speak a little bit about the build up to this program as well as any developments or findings through the use of this aircraft in the Etosha National Park since the end of 2013?
Joe Noci: This pilot was certainly the first Namibian trained on the MK-II system, and training of further personnel is planned for in the next two months. However, we had already trained another pilot, in fact one of the head scientists at the Ministry Of Environment and Tourism (MET) and delivered to MET a MK-I system, the MK-II predecessor. The purpose of that system is to assist in crocodile counting along the rivers bordering the northern parts of Namibia.
The system has been extensively used in an anti-poaching role along the north-central border of Etosha, an area well known as a hotspot. It has proven effective also in detecting illegal entry into the park by local villagers and their cattle, who leave broken fences, an easy entrance for poachers. Since Etosha is also an international flamingo breeding ground, the UAV is also planned to be used for counting flamingos and their eggs during the breeding season.
The MK-II system was procured by MET, from donor funding, during the early part of 2013, and we developed a number of its capabilities to suit the needs of the park operators. The pilot training was self-developed, derived from the many training programs we had developed during our previous careers in UAV systems.
Center for the Study of the Drone: Was the SurVoyeur MK-II specifically developed for conservation use?
Joe Noci: The MK-I system was the first fully automatic system we developed in Namibia for client’s for land surveying and geo-referencing. The MK-II evolved since we diverged more into the conservation related area, and needed to be able to fit more sophisticated stabilized payloads, day and night infrared cameras, and such.
Center for the Study of the Drone: Could you describe a typical mission for the SurVoyeur MK-II in Etosha?
Joe Noci: Missions are linked strongly to foot patrols, which are very regularly executed, albeit at non-regular or non-predictable times. Flights are sometimes co-incident with patrols, sometimes lagging and sometimes leading. Poachers often wait for the patrols to pass and then enter the areas—an eye in the sky makes this more difficult. Missions are also flown without foot patrols. The key element being to ensure that the surprise element is ever-present.