African elephant on the plains.

Eagles Combat Poaching with High-Tech Solutions

Alumnus supports UAS research

Embry-Riddle researchers are developing surveillance technology to combat poaching in southern Africa thanks to a generous gift from alumnus Dom Narducci (’11) and his wife, Lauren Lockliear. 

Principal Investigator Dr. Johann Dorfling is leading researchers in the ICARUS group on the project Instrumentation and Control of Autonomous Robotic and Unmanned Systems. They are working with the conservation nonprofit Elephants, Rhinos & People (ERP) whose mission is to protect elephants and rhinos by alleviating poverty around game reserves in Africa where wages are low, and tusks and horns sell at high prices. 

“The ICARUS group had been focused on looking up at the sky to determine if something was friend or foe,” says Dorfling, who is an assistant professor of Aerospace Engineering and the Raisbeck Engineering Design/Build/Test Endowed Distinguished Chair. “So, we thought, why don’t we put that same sensor technology to use looking down to determine if an unwanted intrusion into a game reserve is an animal, human or vehicle.” 

That work will include developing a network of perimeter sensors spaced along the exterior fence line of preserves. The sensors will be designed to detect breaches from animals, humans and vehicles. As a next step, an interior “range mesh” or network of posts fitted with sensors will be placed throughout the reserve to help localize and detect activity, Dorfling explains. Finally, researchers will deploy autonomous observation aircraft that have the capability to launch when cued by the sensor network. 

“I love the interface between technology and literal boots on the ground to solve a problem.”

— Dom Narducci (’11) 

“We are dealing with massive reserves of tens of thousands of hectares with harsh environments and minimal infrastructure,” Dorfling says. “If our research work results in even just one thing that ERP can use on their reserves to protect the lives of elephants and rhinos, we will have been successful.” 

Narducci is a big-picture thinker who believes it is important not to constrain the outcome of a project with preconceived notions. After graduating with a degree in Aerospace Engineering, Narducci pivoted to become a software engineer for Uber and is now the company’s longest-tenured employee. He and his wife are passionate about animal welfare and conservation. “I love the interface between technology and literal boots on the ground to solve a problem,” he says. 

Narducci encourages students to “get out of the classroom, get out of the research lab and do something that may require putting on some sunscreen to see if what they are working on from a technology perspective is applicable in the real world.”