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Five questions for John PetersenFive questions for John Petersen

Editor's note: The responses below to an email Q&A have been edited to conform with AOPA publication style, but are otherwise unchanged.

As the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation prepares to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of one of aviation’s most famous flights, John Petersen, the chairman of the foundation’s board, reflected on what the aviator might have thought about using drones to stop the slaughter of animals in Africa.

John Petersen. Photo courtesy of The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation.

The Lindbergh Foundation created a program called Air Shepherd in response to an emergency that threatened the existence of entire species in Africa, particularly rhinos and elephants: a surge in illegal poaching. Working with drone-maker UAV & Drone Solutions, Air Shepherd has achieved noteworthy success (reported on in March by The New York Times) that encourages expanding Air Shepherd's aerial support for animals to more locations. The Lindbergh Foundation is working on that, in part with a black-tie event planned in New York on May 20.

In a recent phone conversation with AOPA, Petersen estimated that a $30 million annual budget could fund enough drone teams across Africa to reduce poaching to the point where the existence of animal species is no longer in doubt. Following up on that via email, Petersen answered five questions from AOPA Drone Pilot:

What do you imagine Charles Lindbergh might have thought had he seen Air Shepherd in action?  

Reeve Lindbergh, the youngest daughter of Charles and Anne, often says that her father would be thrilled about this program of using advanced drones to counter the poachers of elephants and rhinos. The Lindberghs took their family to Africa on safaris in a number of countries and were very concerned about the future of the great animals. Our Air Shepherd program is a great example of the Lindberghs’ deep interest in balancing technology and the environment ... and aviation.

What attributes make small unmanned aircraft an asset against poachers in the field?  

First of all our electric aircraft are silent and invisible. We fly at night—when the poachers operate—and they don’t know we are there. Secondly, there are extraordinary new sensor capabilities that are being developed for small drones: infrared optics, to be sure, but also now radar, LIDAR and very specialized packages, like shot analyzers (that can generate an instantaneous vector toward the source of a gunshot), that allow these small aircraft to be very capable. Thirdly, our custom-designed aircraft can fly up to 4 hours on a single charge of the batteries, which provides for much longer observations than with most drones. Fourthly, flying drones is far cheaper than full-sized aircraft, which allows us to cover much more area for a given amount of funding. Fifthly, we are working with universities and commercial developers to rapidly expand our capabilities by supplementing our field operations by integrating artificial intelligence-based pattern recognition into the video streams, develop big data-based, predictive analytics and other advanced sensor packages that will keep us significantly in front of the capabilities that might be fielded by the poachers.

Has Air Shepherd flown UAS beyond visual line of sight?

We fly exclusively beyond line of sight (BLOS) and at night. Up until a couple of months ago it was not legal to fly either BLOS or at night in the U.S., so we’re probably the only non-military operators in the world that exclusively fly in this way. Incidentally, we now have flown aver 4,000 missions and almost 7,000 hours in four southern African countries, so we clearly have more experience in this area than anyone else. The pilots of our African operating partner, UAV & Drone Solutions (UDS), were the first licensed drone pilots on the planet and UDS was the first licensed operator—as a commercial airline! (This is the category in which they fall.)

Do you think Air Shepherd can help improve the public image of drones?

As with many new technologies, governments invest significant funding to weaponize them in order to develop a presumed advantage on the battlefield. In being the “first to market,” they establish the major memes that define the technology. But the future of drones will not be described primarily in military terms. Many millions of “civilian” drones have been sold and they will only become increasingly capable—both in terms of flight characteristics and management and payloads. The market and technology is expanding so quickly that it is impossible to imagine what one will be able to do with drones three years from now. They will have applications in many areas. We have been [fortunate] to see this trajectory and its application to conservation early and be able (with our partner UDS) to move very quickly into a space where it provides a significant advantage over the legacy approaches to countering poaching. We believe that in the coming years deployed UAS platforms will be used for many other conservation and ecology-oriented areas, especially as the on-board sensor technology advances rapidly. The image is clearly going to change. 

Do you need pilots? If not (a response that would sadden if not surprise us), how else might readers help Air Shepherd protect and conserve wildlife?  

Yes we need pilots, but not as you might think about it. Our operations are exclusively deep in the bush in remote areas of southern Africa and our teams deploy into the field for extended periods of time, often being gone for a month or more before they get back to civilization. UDS has found that it is relatively easy to train drone pilots (although our training process takes 4-5 months), but it is harder to find individuals who enjoy being away from civilization for extended periods of time. So, UDS first looks for folks (often couples) that enjoy living off the beaten path and then trains them and gets them licensed by the South African government. 

Readers who might like to know more about Air Shepherd operations can access www.airshepherd.org. The Lindbergh Foundation is celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s epic flight as well as the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the foundation with a gala event in New York on May 20 that will highlight the Air Shepherd program and advances in electric flight. It will be a very memorable evening. Information can be found here

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Topics: Unmanned Aircraft

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