Affordable and intelligent aerial systems for environmental protection

  • A dorm-room idea turned into an award-winning research program, Wadi Drone is an autonomous UAS which wirelessly retrieves information from camera traps and other ground-based sensors

About Wadi Drone

Wadi Drone is a fixed wing airplane with a 2.1 meter wingspan carrying a small communications payload that retrieves information from ground-based scientific measurement devices. Designed in collaboration with Wadi Wurayah National Park, UAE’s largest conservation area, the drone can fly over mountains and through valleys to wirelessly download photographs taken by ground-based camera traps that automatically capture images of wildlife as they pass in front of the camera’s motion sensor. The technology requires minimal infrastructure and employs commonly-available components, so it is scalable within the UAE and worldwide to document animal population sizes and wildlife diversity.

Flying in Wadi Wurayah
UAV in the air
RMRC Anaconda on a runway
Plane in the field

Drone Technology in Conservation

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other environmental preservation organizations have realized the importance of accelerating research and conservation efforts through innovative approaches. This has led organizations and governments to begin investing in applications of technology and modern forms of research that expand the productivity of individual projects and programs. Particularly, focus has recently shifted to making safe and effective use of drone technology. In 2012, Lian Pin Koh and Serg Wich started the community-driven Conservation Drones project to efficiently capture aerially-scanned footage of rainforests. With the support of the WWF, they’ve also tracked elephants in Kenyan wildlife reserves and used drones to observe the aftermath of deforestation. Furthermore, Google has provided WWF a grant of 5 million US dollars to develop a drone-based anti-poaching system. While drone technology is recognized as useful by professionals ranging from filmmakers to engineers, in the hands of conservation specialists, drones have proven crucial to bringing transformative projects to life.

Camera trap in the forest.

In careful consideration of where drones can and should exist to do good and be good for humanity, our team identified wildlife conservation as a key opportunity to safely and unobtrusively leverage drone technology. Collaborations with our partners at the Emirates Wildlife Society and Wadi Wurayah National Park helped steer our development towards remote data collection in pristine regions where deploying communications infrastructure would otherwise spoil the natural heritage.

In protected areas worldwide, the use of camera traps involves rangers manually retrieving photos by hiking or driving to each camera at least twice a year. This method is expensive due to the extensive man-hours involved. In the process, rangers become exposed to some combination of difficult terrain, extremely high or low temperature, and wild animals. Furthermore, infrequent access to the camera trap data presents a challenge for researchers as they only receive camera trap data twice a year from each camera. Since the researchers use the data in camera traps to estimate population sizes and to monitor wildlife diversity, infrequent access to the information means that the data is often outdated. Wadi Drone addresses these issues.

Technical implementation

Wadi Drone transmission system can work with any platform that supports Pixhawk flight controller, whether it is a plane or a quadcopter. However, it is specifically designed with Pixhawk 2.1, which is currently the most advanced version of the autopilot, and RMRC Anaconda airframe, which we chose for its long range, payload and portability while on the ground.

If the aerodynamics (e.g. control surfaces, center of gravity, …) and autopilot parameters (e.g. stall speed, loiter radius, take-off gradient, …) are configured properly, the plane can take off, fly and land autonomously.

Wadi drone diagram

Battery life

The camera trap system has a longer battery life than the camera trap itself. At the operational voltage of 5V, the power consumption of the system is approximately 160.5 mWh. The lithium ion battery has a rated capacity of 44 Wh and the solar panel can provide 36Wh of energy per day. Therefore, running solely on the battery, the system can operate in the field for 373 days. With the solar panel, the system battery life extends to 870 days. We performed this calculation assuming a 0.02% daily decrease in solar panel efficiency as outlined by 2001 Kimber et al. in a California-based study of solar panels.

Winning UAE Drones for Good 2015

In February 2015, our team presented Wadi Drone live in front of more than 600 people in the Drones for Good competition. Our team came first in the National category and secured a prize of AED 1,000,000. The experience gave me the chance to improve my public speaking significantly, and led to a handful of other opportunities. Thanks to Wadi Drone, I received an invitation to speak at TEDx in Kiev, Ukraine, at my friend’s former international school.

Receiving the prize from Prime Minister of the UAE