Teens' drone gives Rwandan wildlife officials an eye in the sky

After Max Alger-Meyer visited Akagera National Park, he decided to create a drone the rangers could use to track the animals. The use of drones in conservation is growing.

David Zalubowski/AP
Nathan Lepore (r.) and Max Alger-Meyer work on their drone at DSST Stapleton in Denver, April 22. The two teens designed the affordable drones so wildlife officials at Akagera National Park could keep an eye on wildlife and easily replace any parts that malfunction.

A Denver teen visiting the Akagera National Park in Rwanda noticed that rangers protecting the park's lions, elephants, and leopards often patrolled on foot, occasionally making difficult trips into the park's swamps to check on rare birds.

So the teen, Max Alger-Meyer, had an idea: what if he could build an affordable drone so rangers could keep an eye on wildlife from the air?

He set to working on the project with friend Nathan Lepore, also 18, discovering that making the drone themselves was cheaper than buying one. They're now donating the drone, which cost just over $1,000 to build, to the park. Rangers "deal with a lot more difficult problems than we do, and with very limited resources," he told the Associated Press. 

Drones are often associated with their use as weapons, with aerial photography, or for delivering supplies to remote regions. Increasingly, conservationists are also using them to monitor wildlife and even crack down on poaching in Africa.

Last year, the Minnesota-based Lindbergh Foundation began a program called Air Shepherd, to pair up drones with predictive analytics technology developed at the University of Maryland.

Using camera and GPS, the foundation says, the drones could help parks silently keep an eye on poachers at hours when rangers couldn't track them. In initial tests, the technology was able predict poaching activity with 93 percent accuracy, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

There also need to be best practices to avoid alarming wildlife spooked by the silent humming eyes in the sky, researchers at the University of Adelaide's Unmanned Research Aircraft Facility noted in a paper earlier this month.

"In our experience, the vast majority of [unmanned aerial vehicle users] both biologists and hobbyists, do not want to disturb wildlife and will often seek advice from experts," Jarrod Hodgson, a PhD candidate who co-authored the article published in the journal Current Biology, noted in a press release.

Particularly, the authors suggest adhering to civil aviation rules, such as restrictions on flying above a certain altitude, at night, or near people. They also suggest drones should be quiet and even embrace particular color schemes to "mimic non-threatening wildlife" native to the area, the Monitor's Story Hinckley reported.

For Max and Nathan, the two Denver teens, designing a drone for Akagera also offered a challenge: building it with parts that the park rangers could easily replace with improvised materials.

Jes Gruner, the park's manager, says the teens' drone means the park could avoid the expense required to monitor rare birds in Akagera's swamps, or possibly help track brushfires.

Currently, the park brings in a helicopter for animal counts, but it's costly, Mr. Gruner told the AP. "We don't have the luxury of playing with money."

Max and Nathan also credit the experience with teaching them more about building a project frugally. Nathan has been accepted to Stanford's mechanical engineering program, while Max will begin studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Colorado next year.

For Max, the project also led to a new-found interest in conservation.

"Seeing how (rangers) operated such a vast park with limited resources, that kind of problem solving they do intrigues me," he told the AP.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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