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Terrapin 1 Teaches Rhino Poachers to Fear the Turtle

May 28, 2013

Heather Dewar 301-405-9267

Photo credit: Tom SnitchCOLLEGE PARK, Md. - Guided by computer modeling developed by a University of Maryland visiting professor, the first unmanned aerial vehicle flight of its kind has successfully protected an adult rhinoceros and its calf in a South African rhino poaching hot spot.

In response to a deadly epidemic of rhino killings, which are being slaughtered for the ivory in the horns, Tom Snitch, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) has organized an all-volunteer expedition to conduct experimental anti-poaching surveillance near South Africa's Krueger National Park. The team is currently testing portable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, equipped with infrared cameras and guided by a computer program that predicts the movements of rhinos and poachers.

This combined technology is a new weapon in the war on wildlife poachers. UMIACS faculty members have used the same programming techniques to detect explosives caches used by insurgents in Iraq, and are working on other non-military applications of UAV flights, including wilderness rescue missions and surveillance of fast-moving crop diseases.

University of Maryland visiting scholar Tom Snitch demonstrates a hand launch of the Falcon UAV nicknamed Terrapin 1 (in honor of the University's mascot) at Olifant West, a private game preserve near South Africa's Krueger National Park. An all-volunteer team field-tested the UAV, or drone, combined with a special predictive computer model as a new tool for intercepting rhino poachers The technology performed "flawlessly," team members sad.On May 26, the team conducted the first night flight of a UAV dubbed "Terrapin One" (pictured left held by Snitch) over the Olifant West section of the Balule Game Reserve near Krueger National Park. During the 70-minute anti-poaching mission, the team was able to locate a rhino and its calf in only a few minutes using their analytical model. Flying around the rhinos in a grid pattern looking for potential poachers, the UAV spotted a suspicious car stopping close by and the team was able to alert the authorities immediately.

"The flight paths which we created with our analytical model took us precisely to where the mathematics suggests that a rhino was most likely to be and we were able to easily spot the animals from 200 meters in the air. We were also able to close in on a suspect vehicle and begin a rapid response activity," says Snitch. "We believe this is the first time that a UAV has been flown at night, with an infrared camera, where rhinos were identified from the air and a possible - and it is only a possible - poaching event was successfully deterred."

A reporter for The Telegraph of London was on the scene. Read her account of Terrapin One's maiden flight and the ongoing shooting war that pits rhino poachers against conservationists, private game wardens and the South African government.

Read earlier coverage, based on Dr. Snitch's April 11 on-campus talk about the rhino poaching crisis and his plans for mission that is now underway.


A drone’s eye view of wild rhinos and elephants at night, as seen by an infrared camera aboard the Falcon UAV nicknamed “Terrapin One.” Footage courtesy of Falcon UAV: