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International student team creating an unmanned aerial vehicle system to combat African rhino poaching and illicit wildlife trafficking
213 backers pledged $22,403 to help bring this project to life.

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Team AREND is a project of Wildlife Protection Solutions (WPS), a Colorado 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. WPS is an international non-profit group dedicated to the conservation of endangered species. Its current focus is on the five species of rhinos world-wide, with a special emphasis on creating habitat and breeding programs that will allow rhino populations to grow faster than they are being poached.

A big thanks to Ben Fraser in Boulder, CO for producing our video!

What is the project?

Our student team is building an Unmanned Aerial System (UAV) to support wildlife conservation.

An international student team (Team AREND) is collaborating to compete in the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge to design, build & fly an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in support of anti-poaching operations in South Africa.  This student team is led by Dr. Jean Koster at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and includes teams from Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, Finland, the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

We are especially pleased to collaborate with the University of Pretoria in South Africa, specifically their CSIR Aeronautical Group and the Centre for Wildlife Management.

Team AREND Organization
Team AREND Organization

Also collaborating with and supporting / sponsoring this student team is Helios Torque Fusion, Inc., NIST - the National Institute for Standards and Technology, First RF Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, Blue Atmos, LLC of Denver, Colorado, Four Winds Interactive Inc. of Denver, Colorado, the Arvada Modelers club and many technology experts from the region.  Helios Torque Fusion, Inc. is a Colorado-based business working to commercialize hybrid-electric propulsion systems for UAVs, making the aircraft more fuel-efficient and quiet - both important for wildlife monitoring & protection.The African Conservation Foundation supplies us with poaching information material so we can create a better solution to the unique challenges presented.

Team AREND is composed of aerospace, mechanical, electrical, and computer engineers, skilled in the following technical areas: structures, composite materials, fabrication, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, controls, (power) electronics, sensors and instrumentation, software, etc.

Primary team advisers are faculty members at the four universities as shown in this graph:

AREND Academic Advisors & Leads
AREND Academic Advisors & Leads

Professionals from the UAV industry and wildlife conservation organizations are invaluable resources to design a dedicated aircraft based on understanding of wildlife behavior and poacher operational modes. We are fortunate to have large pool of resources that we can tap into for advice; advisers with complimentary knowledge in all aspects of UAV design, sensors, and wildlife management. Our colleagues from Pretoria also have an excellent working relation to SANParks rangers who experienced poaching and operational modes of poachers.

AREND Industry Advisors
AREND Industry Advisors

The time schedule for the design is shown in the following graph. First the graph shows the different class times at the different universities. This challenge is overcome by motivated who continue to work during their semester breaks. New students may come onboard at each semester beginning. The time schedule contains blocks for major tasks. The milestones for the project are also indicated with colored bullets. Such a clear planning shall keep the development of the project on track.  In addition to contributing to an important humanitarian & ecological cause, students have the opportunity to develop pertinent team-working skills in globally delocalized teams - the future in high tech industry - as well as exposure to industry employers.

Global Timeline
Global Timeline

Team Updates: facebook.com/teamarend

Aircraft Requirements:

In the following the top level requirements to design and build the competition aircraft are given.

Low cost UAV to perform counter-poaching missions | Take-off gross weight < 55 lbs satisfying AMA regulations | Must have mechanical motor arming system | Engine must be safely accessible by crew member | Safety arming device must be in safe mode for all payload access.

Performance Requirements:

Radio or (preferred) auto-controlled | Endurance goal: 120 minutes flight | Recovery: radio or (preferred) autopilot recovery | Recovery zone goal: 10 meters (~30 ft.) radius | Take-off weight with payload< 55 lbs

Communication Performance:

Internet capable devices (PC, smart phones). 3G/4G communications with backup radio links | Range goal: 20 km (~12.4 miles) | Continuity goal: 76-100% | Accessibility over IP devices: full telemetry with video streaming

Imagery Quality:

Resolution goal: 5 centimeter line separation at 300 ft. AGL (Above Ground Level) | Stability goal: electronic image and physical stability | Low light level (dawn/dusk) and night time

Embedded Systems:

Ability of onboard system to detect moving ground targets (humans, rhinos) in imagery - goal is to detect and geo-register (GPS position (Global Positioning System)) | moving targets | animal targets | identify animals

Cost limit:

<$5000 TBR (without sensor package) | Goal = $1000

Stretch goals:

For creative and innovative ideas beyond the required specifications, teams can earn bonus points.

What We Need & What You Get

Our goal is to raise $20,000 to support the project in these areas of development:

  • Aircraft construction materials, fuselage & wing components, control surfaces and so forth,
  • Sponsored research with the University teams for use of mechanical and electronic shops, machinists, technicians, and administrative personnel,
  • Hybrid-electric engine development, balancing long-endurance capabilities with fuel efficiency and low noise,
  • Trade studies of military-grade sensor packages to detect animals and threats
  • Team travel for flight testing and site visits, and other documentation and administration as required for aircraft operations.

All contributions will be received by Wildlife Protection Solutions, and qualify as charitable contributions.  Additionally, every donor will receive memorabilia and recognition for their contributions to the effort - see reward details for more information about donation levels, and what the benefits are for various levels of donation.

How the Funds Will Be Used

The funds raised during this campaign will be used to conceive, design, build, and fly an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that helps fight Rhino Poaching.  Our mission is to develop a special, remotely-piloted aircraft meeting stringent requirements for harsh operation-in-wilderness, and equipped with diverse day/night and other sensors to detect and distinguish poachers and tourists as well as rhinos and other wildlife.

The aircraft needs to fly under remote control and with autopilot. Poachers move during late afternoon and at night when the sky is clear, giving the poacher bushmen moonlight to see by Infrared (IR) sensors can detect body heat, see extinguished fire pits, hot engines and tracks from cars. These sensors will also see rhinos and can assess how close they are to potential poachers. The GPS location data will inform the rangers about the exact location of rhinos and poachers so they can pursue them with the help of military personnel. Radio frequency identification (RFID) is tested by the rangers with tags mounted to the rhinos and vehicles. Rangers themselves have RFID tags so the aircraft pilot at a control station (which may be a ranger headquartered at a special vehicle) knows that this is a ranger and not a poacher. The propulsion system is a hybrid gas-electric engine which provides endurance in addition to the gas engine, with the option to fly quietly with electric only propulsion when poachers are detected. We are exploring other intelligence gathering methods as well to create a most efficient aircraft system to detect and catch poachers during day and night operations.

The Impact

In the past 40 years, Rhino populations have suffered a 90% decline.  In Kruger National Park alone, 425 rhinos were poached in 2012, and this number has more than doubled in 2013 to 1,004.  This kill rate is nearing parity with the birth rate, making extinction a grave concern. Even if all poaching were to be halted immediately, the rhino population would take many years to recover as they only reproduce every 3-5 years.

The exponential rate appears to be linked to the economic growth of countries like China and Vietnam; the new-rich population uses rhino horn as a panacea for health and showing off wealth. As the new-rich population is expected to continue to grow exponentially, we can expect a correlation with future poaching efforts.

Chart from SANWild Wildlife Trust
Chart from SANWild Wildlife Trust

Compounding this problem, the poaching arrest rate is only about 5% due to the extensive poacher networks, and their increasing sophistication. Park Rangers are in desperate need of a force multiplier, which is where Team AREND's UAV system comes into play!

Web Video (WARNING!!!, some scenes of animal violence may be disturbing, inappropriate for young or sensitive viewers):

About the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge

In view of the escalating problem of wildlife trafficking, President Obama has signed an Executive Order for Combating Wildlife Trafficking on July 1, 2013. In response to President Obama's Executive Order, Princess Aliyah, the Reserve Protection Agency, and Global Unmanned Systems initiated the worldwide Wildlife Conservation UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to foster innovation and invention in the design, fabrication, and utilization of unmanned aircraft to assist with counter-poaching and illicit wildlife trafficking.  It calls on students, hobbyists, academics and corporations to cooperate in a design, build, fly & compute challenge that emphasizes the integration of sensors, embedded systems, and communications in a robust and high-endurance aircraft.

Princess Aliyah created Kashmir-Robotics as a division of the Al-Kareem Foundation to ensure the best possible aircraft and ground robots are integrated with anti-poaching systems to help protect endangered species. More info about the challenge can be found here: www.wcuavc.com

Please note that this fundraising campaign is specifically to support our team AREND to participate in the competition, and not the competition itself.  More details about the team AREND can be viewed at http://facebook.com/teamAREND. We appreciate your “like” and informing your friends about our efforts.

Now you can be part of the solution! Help us provide an unmanned aircraft solution that multiplies the ranger’s forces. The graduate University of Colorado Boulder team will collaborate with international teams at the Universities of Pretoria, South Africa, the University of Stuttgart, Germany, Metropolia University in Helsinki, Finland (supported by the National Institute of Science and Technology), and several industries in developing an aircraft with the appropriate capabilities; thus, you will gain experience in design, project management, technology transfer, global collaborations, cross-functional and multi-cultural teamwork, critical design analysis, and business organization in addition to engineering credit.

More Details About the Causal Problem...

Demand for goods made from rhinoceros horns has skyrocketed in South East Asia and China over the last 6 years due to a rapidly rising middle class in those economies. At the root of the rhino crisis is the use of rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fever, pain, rheumatism, cancer, erectile dysfunction and convulsions. Rhino horn is highly sought after in China and more importantly in Vietnam, despite the fact that rhino horn has been extensively analyzed scientifically and offers no medicinal properties. Nevertheless, claims of the medicinal value of these products are broadcast by profit-seekers. Rhino horn is comprised of keratin, the same material as human hair and finger/toe nails. In addition, rhino horn is a recreational drug in Vietnam and used by the middle class as a detoxifying beverage and body-rejuvenating tonic. To satisfy this demand, poaching in places like Kruger National Park in South Africa is rampant with captured rhinos killed and left to rot for nothing more than their horns. Rhinos are even, in some cases, left dying for hours in their own blood after having their horn removed.Many countries in Africa suffer from poaching. The following map shows the trade route for rhino horn material.

Trade Route of Rhino Horn
Trade Route of Rhino Horn

Until now many countries in Asia lacked legislation to prevent legal import of these goods. Only recently have the Chinese and Vietnamese governments implemented new laws against the import of rhino and elephant products but the question remains how quickly these laws will take effect in a flourishing black market. And more importantly, when will the people in these cultures realize the irreversible damage caused by poaching rhinos is not worth their carved ornamental artifacts of no use or the ineffective traditional medicine based on horn material? The syndicated black market continues to supply the demands by the nouveau-riche until those people change their philosophies.

According to the South African Military, it became increasingly important to utilize the army when syndicates began using helicopters, night vision equipment and high-powered rifles in their hunts. Rangers on the ground are ill equipped to stop the poachers, often outnumbered and out-gunned by a criminal network that invests in technology and intelligence to ensure their access to the rhinos. The deployment of South African National Defence Force (SANDF) members at the Kruger National Park has brought confidence that rangers can regain control, at least to some degree. In March 2013, following a plea for help by the South African National Parks (SanParks) the SANDF deployed 265 soldiers at Kruger National Park and the borders around the park,.

Until 2007 the poaching was limited. Since 2008 there was a rapid, exponential increase in poaching and it became a year round activity. Poaching is considered to be a “low risk - high reward” activity by the poachers, for reasons discussed below. In recent years poachers began using darting guns and veterinary drugs to immobilize the rhino. Darting guns are silent and prevent acoustic detection by patrols. With axes and/or motor saws, without veterinary knowledge that might give the animal a chance of survival, poachers cut off the horn anyway they can as it must be done very quickly in order to retreat fast. In some cases they tranquilize the animals and mutilate it so much that it cannot survive in the wild, leaving them to die a horrible death. In other cases they simply kill the animal on the spot.

The poachers that come from other countries, particularly Mozambique, are armed with AK47s, grenades, chain saws, axes, GPS, night vision, and sometimes helicopters. They don't play; these poachers mean business. Many of the poachers are former Mozambican soldiers and are well trained to fight. They are often guided to a rhino location through the use of “tourists” who join ranger tours. They transmit the GPS data to their command center that then dispatches the poachers, primarily during cover of night.

Examples of poached animals are shown below. They were recent events on the ranch of John and Albina Hume. Images show how reckless the poachers are in removing the horn and how traumatic it is for the animals.

Picture courtesy of Albina Hume, University of Pretoria
Picture courtesy of Albina Hume, University of Pretoria
Picture courtesy of Albina Hume, University of Pretoria
Picture courtesy of Albina Hume, University of Pretoria

Shown below is another example of a Rhino that survived the poaching act; but only for a short time! It did not survive the event very long because of the severity of the wounds. If the animals survive poaching they are often euthanized by Rangers to stop their incredible suffering.

Picture Courtesy of Lowveld Rhino Trust
Picture Courtesy of Lowveld Rhino Trust

While rhino horn price in 2006 was just $1000 for 1 kg (2.2 lbs.), today one kg of rhino horn has an average market value of about $80,000. Poachers often get around ZAR1 million (~$100,000) for one horn of about 4 kg (8.8 lbs.). Black market prices vary widely; as of last fall 2012 dealers in Vietnam quoted prices ranging from $33 to $133 a gram (0.002 lbs.) ($80 on average), which at the top end is higher than the price of gold (~$47/gram on 10/26/2013) and exceeds the price of cocaine in most locations including New York City.

The poacher who is going to shoot the rhino reportedly gets R500,000 (~$50,000) from syndicated criminals, the one with an axe and the third one get R250,000 ($25,000) each. Some of the poachers are young unemployed South African men driven by poverty and lured by foreign syndicates to do the dirty job in exchange for very attractive amounts of money. These would-be poachers get a deposit from the syndicates before they carry out the job within a given time frame. Given their limited understanding of that money, they often spend the money before having the horn. As their customers are associated with global organized crime syndicates, the promise to come back with the rhino horn must be fulfilled at all costs, or else they are in big trouble to repay their debt! This means that there is also a major socio-economic problem linked to poaching.

In recent time poachers commanded by syndicates operate in flash mobs. Multiple groups enter the park at the same time in small groups. Reports mention that up to 300 poachers were roaming in KNP at one given time.

Park rangers are up against well-armed crime syndicates which use funds from poaching for terrorist activities.  For example, Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group aligned with al Qaeda, is raking in about $650,000 a month on the black market from poaching, according to England's Daily Express. Thus the US government announced a $1M reward for information leading to the dismantling of some syndicates, primarily operating from Laos as reported by the New York Times.

The fight against poaching has several stages as depicted in the following sketch. The Rangers are pursuing the poachers in order to prevent the killing. Once the poacher gets past that line of defense and leave KNP into Mozambique, middlemen smuggle the horns out of that country to end-markets  Customs officials have some capability to detect the smuggle ware, but these horns do not usually enter the destination countries via conventional, legal routes. In the receiving country, there are the syndicated middlemen who distribute the horns to small back alley shops where they are prepared for the final market, primarily the nouveau riche middle class in emerging Asian countries (e.g. Vietnam and China).

Pathway of Illicit Wildlife Trade: interceptions are possible at each interface.
Pathway of Illicit Wildlife Trade: interceptions are possible at each interface.

It is possible corruption is a pervasive factor. It appears that criminal syndicates have infiltrated the law enforcement and justice systems of South Africa. If an arrest is made, it happens often that filed papers are mysteriously lost. Once the dockets have gone missing, the case is over and the suspects are released. These organized criminals have systematically reduced their risk of breaking important conservation and humane rulings.  They have had the upper hand long enough – it is time for a surge in protecting forces. It is quite seriously “one-minute-to-midnight” in the war against poaching! Due to the significant money some rangers now participate in the poaching as well. On February 2012 four rangers of KNP were arrested on suspicion of poaching rhinos they are tasked to protect. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/29/us-sa...).

Preventative Efforts

Rangers have often gone into the Kruger National Park to dehorn Rhinos that roam very close to the Mozambique border. This is a measure to protect the animal from being killed, as it devalues the animal as a poaching target. These operations are done by veterinarians who know how to dehorn a Rhino without harm. The horn will grow back in several years. The Rhino will be less protected against lion attacks, but still very capable to defend itself vigorously. It would be much better not to have this kind of need for animal protection! Often the poachers kill even if just for a stump.

The Dehorning of a White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium Simum) in Hwange National Park during the early 1990's, Photo by M. Kock
The Dehorning of a White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium Simum) in Hwange National Park during the early 1990's, Photo by M. Kock
Veterinarians dehorn a tranquilized Rhino for its own protection from poachers
Veterinarians dehorn a tranquilized Rhino for its own protection from poachers
A Rhino that recovered from dehorning performed by veterinarians
A Rhino that recovered from dehorning performed by veterinarians

Kruger National Park

Poaching is not limited to the nation of South Africa. Many African Nations, like Kenya, have major problems as shown in the table below. Much of the poaching is also done in provincial and private parks in South Africa. However, Kruger National Park (KNP) is the most severely poached park as bordering with Mozambique. The Southern White Rhino – 20165 surviving- are under huge pressure of poaching as the Black Rhino has a population of less than 5000. After being declared endangered in 2006, protection has given them a chance to recover. Our project will focus on the rhino poaching in (KNP) in South Africa where the white rhino roams. But the technology could serve everywhere to help rangers stop animal poaching.

The park lies in the north-east area of South Africa. It is one of the largest national parks in the world, with an area of 19,485 square kilometers (~7,580 sq miles); larger than Connecticut and a slightly smaller than New Jersey. KNP is approximately 360 kilometers (220 miles) long, and has an average width of 65 kilometers (40 miles). At its widest point, the park is 90 kilometers (56 miles) wide from east to west. To the north and south of the park two rivers, the Limpopo and the Crocodile respectively, act as its natural boundaries.  To the east the Lebombo Mountains separate it from Mozambique - the 14th poorest nation in Africa in 2013, according to Financenews.

Location of Kruger National Park.  Source: Google Maps
Location of Kruger National Park. Source: Google Maps

The park varies in altitude between 200 m in the east and 840 m in the south-west near Berg-en-Dal. The highest point in the park is a hill called Khandzalive. Several rivers run through the park from west to east, including the Sabie, Olifants, Crocodile, Letaba, Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers; These rivers are frequently used as rhinos seek watering holes.

The climate of the Kruger National Park is subtropical. Summer days are humid and hot with temperatures often soaring to above 38 °C (100 °F). The sheer size of the park area indicates the enormous difficulty to control the area by automobile. Aerial support is essential to find poachers and rhinos.

Poaching Facts

The statistics of poaching show an increasing number of rhino poaching events demonstrating the exponential growth of the poaching. With 1004 rhinos killed in 2013 and a population of about 20,000, the current concern is that the poaching kills are exceeding the birth rate of rhinos; which is an indisputable warning sign that the extinction of rhinos is becoming a real concern. https://www.environment.gov.za/media/releases/rhinoissue_management_report

Unfortunately the arrests made by the rangers have not kept up with the exponential growth of poaching. Of the 425 poached rhinos in Kruger National Park in 2012 only 73 poachers were arrested. Considering that the poaching teams are often 3 to 6 men, this means only about 10-15 events were caught. That is an anti-poaching “success” rate of less than 5%! Thus poachers see their effort as a very low risk undertaking and very lucrative effort.

In 2013 the number of poached rhinos in South Africa dramatically increased to 408 in the first 6 months and more than 1000 by year end. In January 2014 poachers killed 63 rhinos in KNP only and 86 in South Africa, which compares to the total number poached in 2008. Today the numbers exceed 3 rhinos per day in the “summer” season. KNP takes the brunt of poaching, most of which are killed in the process.

Source: South African National Parks
Source: South African National Parks

The rangers, with select support of the SA military, recently improved their success with intelligence driven operations to arrest 133 poachers in 2013 in KNP, which is the same as previous years in percentage. Private parks were often more successful in making arrests. However, not all poachers were convicted as files got mysteriously lost in transition. Assuming teams of 3 poachers per rhino, we compute an arrest rate of ~7%. However for KNP the arrest rate seems to have decreased to 4.7%. This fight against poaching is also a war: since 2006 some 22 poachers were gunned down and new reports show more fatalities. But rangers are killed in the line of duty as well, often being outgunned and ambushed by the successful poachers.

References & Further Reading

Further Reading supporting above statements (Caution: these may raise your blood pressure!):

1.Rhino Wars, National Geographic March 2012. By Peter Gwin, Photograph by Brent Stirton: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/03/rhino-wars/gwin-text

2.http://rhinoslaughter.wordpress.com/category/rhino-death-toll/

3.http://www.traffic.org/home/2012/8/21/loose-horns-surging-demand-and-easy-money-create-perfect-sto.html

4.http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Defending-the-Rhino.html

5.http://www.africam.com/wildlife/the_truth_about_rhino_poaching_an_interview_with_dr_joseph_okori

6.http://www.rhinos.org/25-things-you-didn-t-know-about-rhinos

7.http://news.softpedia.com/news/6-Amazing-Things-About-Rhinos-and-their-Horns-79342.shtml

8.http://www.rhinoconservation.org/

9.http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/05/why-does-a-rhino-horn-cost-300-000-because-vietnam-thinks-it-cures-cancer-and-hangovers/275881/

10.http://ecowatch.com/2013/01/15/rhinos-in-crisis/

11.http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=rhino+poaching+trade&qpvt=rhino+poaching+trade&FORM=VDRE

12.http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/2013/07/12/rhino-horn-south-africa-legalized/

13.http://www.stoprhinopoaching.com/

14.http://wildaid.org/?gclid=COPR9firq7oCFe4-MgodBCcAKg

15.http://www.bisbeesconservationfund.org/Conservation/SaveTheRhino/

16.http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/rhinoceros/african_rhinos/poaching_crisis_african_rhinos/

17.http://www.hsi.org/issues/rhinoceros_poaching/

18.http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/16/world/africa/helicopters-versus-drones-rhino/

19.http://lowveldrhinotrust.org/

20.http://ens-newswire.com/2013/01/14/rhino-poaching-death-toll-soars-across-south-africa/

21.http://wessa.org.za/get-involved/rhino-initiative/current-rhino-poaching-stats.htm

22.http://killingforprofit.com/

Risks and challenges

Aggressive Timeline: the WCUAVC has set forward an aggressive timeline of project milestones and deliverables - there is risk of missing deadlines. We believe we have sufficiently mitigated this risk by 1) keeping ourselves apprised of project deliverables during weekly global and local team meetings, 2) remaining in regular communication with our team members and with members of the competition leadership team, 3) assigning a graduate student with management skills and training the role of project manager, and 4) involving experienced project managers and engineers as overseers of the project.

Complexity of Aircraft Systems: aircraft systems are inherently complex, and require a "systems" perspective, as each component must be integrated to make the product whole. We believe we have sufficiently mitigated this risk by 1) involving a very experienced bench of industry professional advisors steeped in aircraft systems integration, and 2) putting together a team of students and faculty advisers with pertinent experience, and a track record of success.

Global Team Organization: it is difficult to manage a multicultural team on 3 different continents, how will Team AREND ensure it is properly coordinated? Our industry and faculty advisers are experienced managing this type of team, and have pioneered engineering projects using "follow the sun" techniques, where a team in one part of the globe with perform a hand-off to the teams located west, therein achieving the work product of 3 8-hour workdays in a given 24-hour period. While this manner of operation presents unique challenges, our team is well-positioned to manage through these risks by drawing on past experience and success.

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Funding period

- (30 days)