A new study-abroad program within the College gives students a chance to further their knowledge of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology while helping to protect some of the world’s most majestic animals.
Dr. Larry Silverberg, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, founded the Namibia Wildlife Aerial Observatory (WAO) Project to help protect rhinos, elephants, giraffes and other large African wildlife species using emerging aerial technologies. UAVs can help rangers in African conservation parks keep an eye on poachers, and they can be used to assess erosion damage to riverbeds, monitor controlled burns, keep an accurate census of park animals and survey land.
And aerial video footage and still photographs taken on the African plains can be used to help tell the story of conservation efforts and the uphill battle these efforts face.
NC State is working with three Namibian partners: Naankuse, a private wildlife sanctuary; the Namibia Ministry of Environment and Tourism, which manages the country’s national parks; and the Namibia University of Science and Technology.
Much of the groundwork for the Namibia WAO Project will be performed by field units of eight to 12 undergraduate students, predominantly engineering and wildlife majors, who will spend a fall semester in Namibia as part of the study-abroad experience. Each field unit, under the on-site direction of a pair of trained graduate students, works on both a technical objective and a wildlife mission.
During the project’s initial visit to Namibia, in fall 2017, a field unit of 10 undergraduate students studied the reactions of animal wildlife to UAVs. This information will inform how the WAO system will be deployed.
In coming years, the teams will assess vertical takeoff and landing UAVs that fly longer and quieter, and test autonomous battery exchange stations and wireless networks that more efficiently stream data into the cloud.
In 2018, the program is being opened to students and instructors from Europe and other countries, Silverberg said.
The program revolves around the desire of students to tackle a global problem and gain practical experience in solving on-the-ground problems, all while making progress toward their degrees.
“The project exemplifies the best aspects of the research community as a whole, of NC State’s research community in particular and the power of our students,” Silverberg said. “It shows how global partners can come together and help solve an important, real-world problem.”