The Pig Punisher: Building drones to fight devious crop-devouring hogs

By Yasha Levine , written on June 18, 2014

From The News Desk

Drones. Amazon delivery drones. Google balloon WiFi drones. Facebook high altitude drones. Video drones downed by cheering LA Kings fans. Hobby drones buzzing over the beach just down the street from my house. Drones. They are everywhere and breeding like rabbits.

And down in Nashville, two southern tech guys are working to develop the Pig Punisher, a drone with a badass name that actually aims to solve a real world agricultural problem that's also breeding like rabbits: wild pigs.

Their names are Jake Gish (above, left) and Casey York (right), and their idea is fairly straightforward: The agricultural industry suffers billions in losses every year from crop damage due to all sorts of invasive species. Chief among them: feral pigs, which are notoriously hard to spot, let alone stop. Their plan is to create an autonomous flying drone that can continuously stay in the air, patrol agricultural land and notify farmers when their crops are under attack.

Think of it as an airborne surveillance Roomba.

"Let's say I'm Farmer Joe," Casey says, laying out a use case. "I take it out, calibrate it, set the edges of my property. I never see it again. Sometimes I hear it. So it's out there, going back and forth patrolling. I've forgotten about it. A month later, all of a sudden I get a ding ding ding on my phone. So I open it up and have a overhead view. It's polyspectrum — we can do visible light or infrared and some other things. I'm not sure I want to discuss too many of these details right now... But the drone is GPS enabled, you got an overhead view of these things. Depending on battery life and all those things that you don't have to think about—all of that is worked out in the software. Basically, here is how much time you have to patrol, here is how far you are. You set the thing to engage. If it's not the Johnson's dog, you engage and you follow your phone with a view of the threat right to it."

Why a drone? Why not a straightforward video/motion surveillance system?

Jake and Casey say it's because you're dealing with potentially huge swaths of farmland — thousands and thousands of acres — and a pest that is infamously difficult to track.

"Normally pigs eat at night. They take about six different paths to their food source, and it is very difficult to find them," says Jake. They're strong, they're fast, they're smart, their ears are better than dogs', their nose is better than dogs'. They're one of the most difficult prey to hunt. You ever heard of Hogs Gone Wild on Discovery Channel? There's a guy and he sits in a tree for eight hours hoping that they walk by."

Casey: "The only alternative is sending in a bunch of dogs in armor."

Jake: "Their tusks grow continuously. If you send in a dog in without armor, they're aren't coming back."

Casey: "They're like bears made of ham. They can weigh up to 600 lbs."

All this talk of hunting wild pigs with the aid of automated seeker drones was cool as hell. Before I came to Nashville for Pando Southland, both Sarah Lacy and Paul Carr kept telling me that I absolutely had to go and meet the pig drone guys. Apparently everyone in Nashville was talking about their invention. "This is the perfect story for you," Paul said.

But when I finally did catch up with the pig drone proprietors, I have to say... it was a bit of a let down.

The reason? There's no drone. At least not yet.

I swung by to talk to Jake and Casey at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, the incubator that's helping them develop the Pig Punisher, and all they had so far were a couple of diagrams and charts hanging in their corner of the office. They had nothing real to show me: no prototype, not so much as even a plastic model.

They were also frustratingly guarded about their drone technology. All I could gather is they're probably using a quadcopter design coupled with some kind of multiple battery/charger station swap system to keep their drones up in the air semi-continuously. As for price? They hope to keep it somewhere on the "lower range" of $1,000 to $15,000.

How long could Pig Punisher stay in the air on a single charge? That's also a secret. Jake and Casey have kept that intel very close to their chest, no matter how many times I tried to pry it out of them.

"We are still working on squeezing every second of flight time. We don't have specific numbers for public release but...We have run some very promising tests. I'll keep ya posted," is all Jake would say.

They're doing their first flight test later this week and promise to have a working prototype and a public demo in August. So I guess we'll find out soon...

Of course, if they ever get this system up and running, agriculture wouldn't be the only place where it could be used. And that's exactly what they're thinking. On top of deer, wolves and bears, they're calibrating their drone system to pick up life signs for humans. They're also abandoning the Pig Punisher name for something much blander: the EyeSecure.

"Agriculture is our target market initially, and if we can prove ourselves there, we can move onto other vertical markets such as residential, security, fire, industrial security, construction, industrial monitoring, even a lot of these roadside road crews that leave their equipment overnight. They get their batteries stolen. That's twenty G's worth of batteries."

And batteries would be just the beginning. You don't have to be a drone expert to realize there are all sorts of applications for inexpensive automated patrol drone like the Pig Punisher — er, EyeSecure. Law enforcement, private security, military, border patrol. The sky's the limit.

[Photo by Yasha Levine]