Aerial drones, whether they be dropping bombs, books or burritos, have attracted a certain degree of controversy in recent times. While the potential of the technology is plain to see, many aren't convinced that the benefits will outweigh the risks associated with unmanned vehicles zipping about in the sky above. With its recent field testing of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed to protect an ailing rhino population, Airware is determined to help the industry shed some of these negative connotations.

Airware is a California-based company that specializes in the development of autopilots for unmanned aircraft systems. It recently teamed up with the Oj Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to test a drone equipped with Airware's autopilot platform and control software that will allow it to act as both a deterrent and surveillance tool. The system uses fixed and gimbal-mounted cameras to deliver real-time digital video and thermal images to rangers on the ground, enabling them to deploy a security team in the event of an incident.

During the project, the team ran tests with both flying-wing and fixed-wing vehicles, used bungee and wheeled launches, along with parachute and wheeled landings. With the rangers able to configure flight plans using Airware's mapping interface and carry out flights autonomously from launch to recovery, the exercise went better than anticipated and has the Conservancy excited by the possibilities.

"The Airware control system is outstanding. It is so easy when something like this works, to take it for granted," said Robert Breare, Commercial Director of Ol Pejeta. "This over-delivered on my expectations in terms of both simplicity of use and sophistication of capabilities."

According to its website, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy is home to 96 Black Rhinos, 11 Southern White Rhinos and four Northern White Rhinos, the populations of which are all under severe threat from poaching. Monitoring the well-being of these species at present involves laborious and time-consuming patrols by car or foot, a process which accounts for the majority of the Conservancy's budget and personnel.

In developing a drone specifically designed to execute this task, Airware says Ol Pejeta's monitoring of the animals will yield greater and more reliable data at a much lower cost, a development that could go a long way to preserving the endangered animal.

"It surpassed all of our expectations, said Airware CEO Jonathan Downey. "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."

The following video shows the Airware team testing the drone.

Sources: Airware, Oj Peteja Conservancy