Greentech interviews Kitso Epema, founder of conservation drone startup Dutch UAS.
Kitso Epema is part of a new generation of entrepreneurs who believe that technology might be the key to saving the natural world from destruction. Four years ago, he founded Dutch UAS, a startup with a mission to give scientists and ecologists the means to monitor the Earth.
Kitso and his team have been hard at work developing a drone-based automatic imaging detection system that will help rangers track and intercept poachers in some of the planet’s most at-risk locations. We caught up with the aerospace engineer and drone pilot to find out more about his game-changing plan to save species from extinction.
Dutch UAS offers several different services, but nature conservation has always been at its core. Can you tell us how your vision for using drones in conservation began?
I grew up in Botswana living very close to nature and seeing how amazing it can be – I think everyone should have the chance to visit such a place and experience what it is like. My other passion is technology, especially aircraft. There came a point when I realised that rhino poaching was getting really out of hand, and I thought, I have to do something about this. The logical thing for me to do was to build a drone!
And how do the drones help?
We use the drones with software that recognises animals and poachers using automatic imaging. The idea behind the drones is that they can search immense areas – they can cover a lot more ground than the rangers can by foot or car. This way, the rangers know exactly where they should do their patrols to be really effective, and at what time to station themselves. A drone can find where areas of interest or risk are, eliminating a lot of walking around in areas where there are no rhinos or poachers.
How does Dutch UAS’s methodology differ from other conservation initiatives using drones?
We’re still developing our technology, as it’s not quite ready yet. At the moment, automatic detection is not used that often or that successfully because it’s a pretty difficult thing to do. We need it to work completely automatically and actually on board of a drone, neither of which we have been able to do yet – we’re working towards that point of course! When we can get that ready, we think it will be a game-changer.
When do you think it will be ready?
Good question! I think this year we can get to the point where we can automatically find animals in static pictures, with an accuracy of above 80%. This would be on a computer running somewhere where the picture has already been taken. In a few years’ time, we hope to implement the technology in a live situation.
It sounds like you’re making progress! Where have you been testing it out?
We went to South Africa to carry out trials, testing the drone and giving it to the rangers to fly. Both the automatic detection system and the rangers’ enthusiasm were promising, so that gave us the spirit to continue. What we want to be able to do – and this seemed close in our second trial – is hand the drone over to the ranger and give him a few days training so that he can still use it once we’ve gone.
What obstacles do you have to overcome before this can happen?
The rangers are really interested in getting an eye in the sky that can be really useful to them. However, they also see that the drones take a lot of skill and a lot of practice to operate. Plus, they still don’t give you a very good image of your surroundings, and it’s further limited by the range that you can go and the airtime you have. The idea is there and they really like it in practice, but they haven’t seen it as something that they can immediately start using.
Although word on the street is that African countries will be able to leapfrog and adapt to drone-based systems far quicker than the developed world. Drones have the advantage of being less money and labour intensive to install compared to existing infrastructures, like roads or telephone networks.
This is true! Especially in South Africa, they recognise that drones are going to be a big part of farming and nature conservation, which is why they are really keen on speeding up the process of getting legislation to the point where they can actually start using it.
In your TED Talk two years ago, you discussed the possibility of rhinos becoming extinct in 10 years time if current poaching rates continue. Do you think drones can ensure this doesn’t happen?
I don’t think they will be extinct in eight years’ time, but it’s not only about the drones. The drones are a method to keep the rhinos alive, but the real solution comes from somewhere else. The mindset of killing these animals for a piece of material, that’s what needs to be removed. Only when the motivation is gone will it really stop – drones are only a part of stopping the poaching.
A lot of people associate drones with military use or surveillance, but in fact they are predominantly used for things like scientific research and nature conservation. Do you think that people’s perceptions of drones are changing?
Yes, I really do think so! When I started this project three years ago, the common idea of a drone was the grey military drone. Now if you talk about a drone, people picture the quadcopter with the four rotors. As the image changes, I think the mentality of what people think they are used for also changes. People are seeing that drones can be used for a lot of good things – and that’s what we’re trying to do!
Image credits: Dutch UAS
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