Like many a technology before it, the aerial drone is finding applications far beyond military circles, from burrito delivery to surveying broken bridges. One emerging area with huge potential is wildlife conservation, with drones delivering the ability to patrol and detect illegal poachers from the air. AREND (Aircraft for Rhino and Environmental Defense) is an international team of students currently developing an unmanned aerial system with the ultimate objective of combating poaching in Africa's national parks.

The AREND project is backed by Wildlife Protection Solutions (WPS), an international non-profit group concerned with the conservation of endangered species. The team consists of experts in aerospace, mechanical, electrical and software engineering stationed around the globe, from Helsinki to Colorado.

Following a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, the team at AREND has proceeded to ramp up development of the system. The aircraft has a pusher configuration, which refers to the location of the propeller at the tail end of the fuselage, with communications antennas built into the wings and a gimbaled camera into the nose. The team says it will be capable of silently performing autonomous searches, capturing quality images throughout and then returning safely to a landing area.

The finished product will perform surveillance while distinguishing between people, large animals and other objects such as aircraft wreckage. The team envisions that squadrons of the craft will eventually be permanently ready for fast deployment, working in conjunction with a larger network of sensors to narrow the search area and record and alert authorities to the presence of poachers. This should help build pressure on poacher networks, who AREND says are only becoming more sophisticated and contend with an arrest rate of only 5 percent.

The team behind AREND isn't alone in floating aerial drones as a solution to illegal poaching. Back in January we looked an initiative from Californian company Airware which saw the testing of UAVs at the Oj Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Other drone-led conservation efforts to get off the ground this year include curtailing illegal fishing on Belize's barrier reef and hunting down invasive weeds from the air in Australia.

There's no word yet as to exactly when AREND's drones will take to the skies, but with demand for rhino horn on the rise in China and South East Asia, it won't be a moment too soon when they do.

Source: AREND