I’ve seen this video pop up multiple times, most recently in my Twitter feed. And every time I see it, I think: There’s no way that chimpanzee is flying that drone. And so I started to drill down to the source to see what I could learn.
I can’t remember if I first saw this via Instagram or Twitter. But there was no forgetting it: A chimpanzee, appearing to operate a remote control. An Autel drone was hovering nearby. The drone began the video with its front-facing camera recording the scene. And then slowly, expertly, it rotated until it was facing the chimpanzee. A brief cutaway showed the chimpanzee holding the controller, with a thumb on each joystick. The impression overall was that this chimp was flying a drone — and it didn’t take the internet long to embrace the story. In fact, we even covered it here at DroneDJ — along with everybody else. (And hey, you can’t blame us. We’re always looking for drone news, and this definitely seemed like news.)
But was it? Was this chimp really flying a drone? I don’t think so. And, until it’s proven otherwise, I’m going to state that it’s a flat-out, “No.”
First of all, it’s worth looking at the source. Back in October of 2019, the video was posted to the Instagram account of @kodyantle. Kody is an integral part of Myrtle Beach Safari and a bit of a rock star on Instagram. In fact, he’s got 2.1 million followers and counting.
You might know his dad
Kody’s father is Doc Antle, who owns Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina. When his picture popped up, we realized we’d seen him make an appearance during the Netflix series Tiger King. Bhagavan (Doc) Antle also runs The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.), a 50-acre wildlife preserve. The Safari runs tours through that preserve. (We seem to recall that Doc Antle was perhaps the most normal, rational person on that series.)
Perhaps because Tiger King portrayed aspects of these safari-like experiences in the southern US in a negative light, Myrtle Beach Safari has made efforts to distance itself.
Back to the post…
So, Kody Antle makes the post to Instagram, and it takes off. But let’s look at the wording of that post. Does it say that the chimps are flying the drones? Have a close look:
Vali and Sugriva the chimp brothers checking out new drones that will soon be on their way to Africa on our annual safari trip for wildlife conservation. The Rare Species Fund has provided the first anti-poaching drones for use in the national parks by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). These drones are used in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest which is home to the largest population of the world’s 900 remaining mountain gorillas. The Impenetrable Forest was aptly named because the steep, mountainous terrain and the dense equatorial foliage make the park tricky to access. While this provides a modicum of safety for animals living within the park, it also makes it difficult for rangers to monitor illegal activities within the park.
@kodyantle Instagram post
Note the language there. Specifically, “checking out new drones…” Does it say flying the drones? No. Now, assuming you fly, think back to the first time you were in control of a drone. Sure, the flight controller made things stable, but you likely found out that harsh stick inputs lead to rapid movements. It requires concentration and thought.
The cutaways, however, clearly show some fairly dramatic stick inputs. The fact there’s no phone attached isn’t a big deal, as the Autel controller does have a built-in LCD screen. However, we really doubt that a chimpanzee would be able to understand anything displayed on that screen.
Even a human being takes time to learn the basics of flying a drone. A chimpanzee, regardless of how smart, is unlikely to be able to do this (and the kinds of stick movement seen in the cutaway would send that drone on a very uncontrolled flight). Beyond that, how likely is it that someone in charge of an exotic and valuable animal is going to leave it in control of a drone — especially when one slip-up could cause injury to that animal? Highly unlikely. And how would the FAA react if a drone flown by a chimp flew into controlled airspace and caused an issue? Really… does any of it make sense? No.
With all this in mind, have a skeptical look at the video. In fact, we just noted that someone else shares our concerns about its veracity:
The Myrtle Beach Safari position…
We contacted the Myrtle Beach Safari one day ago and asked for an interview. We explained we simply wanted to confirm or deny whether the chimpanzee had flown the drone. PR person Susan took the question to Doc Antle, but we didn’t hear an answer. We asked again shortly before publication. This was the response:
Scott, it’s our busy season of the year and it’s often difficult to get a response this quickly.
Susan: Myrtle Beach Safari PR
We pointed out that we weren’t really asking for much: A simple “Yes” or “No.”
We wanted to embed the original post that started this all, but it’s been disabled. But here is a link so you can have a look for yourself. The quality is better than the Twitter version.
Thanks to DroneDJ writer @joshspires, however, we learned a little more backstory. A company called Influential Drones contacted Autel and was able to obtain three Autel Robotics EVO drones on a charitable basis. It then donated those to the Rare Species Fund, an organization flagged in the original Instagram post. The drones were handed to Dr. Robert Johnson, the Fund’s COO.
Drones are an invaluable resource for spotting illegal activity taking place within national parks. In mountainous areas, the EVO will allow rangers to take a preliminary glance of an area and will allow rangers to determine where best to focus their attention. Climbing to the top of a mountain may take rangers hours, where the EVO can accomplish the same task in just minutes. Having a photographic or video record of illegal activities allows authorities to successfully prosecute wildlife poachers
Dr. Robert Johnson, Rare Species Fund
Influential Drones also has the full version of the video up here:
We contacted Dave Krause, the co-founder of Influential Drones. Krause is a conservationist himself and says he’s visited the Myrtle Beach Safari about eight times during the past decade.
They’re a fantastic group that really is trying to conserve wildiles. That’s something I believe in and that’s why I support them. Their non-profit gives close to a million dollars a year away.
Dave Krause, Influential Drones
Krause is very familiar with the video. And while he’s pleased that it has been so popular, he worries that many who view it miss the message about the Rare Species Fund and the role drones can play in conservation. The whole point of the video was to raise awareness.
Safety First, chimps second
Dave is also a member of the FAA Safety Team — also known as the FAASTeam. He’s involved in spreading the gospel of safety. And safe drone flying means humans flying the drones. He confirms that the chimps were not flying drones in the video.
The chimpanzees are sitting on two empty boxes and they’re holding the controllers – neither one of them for the drone that’s in the air. It’s being flown off-site by a professional. For the matters of safety, everything was done properly.
Dave Krause, Influential Drones
And does it surprise Krause that people have gone, well, bananas over that video?
No. We’re living in a world right now where people are looking for something different, something exciting, something that makes them smile. That’s what this video does.
Dave Krause, Influential Drones
It’s good marketing
For Myrtle Beach Safari, Instagram is another marketing tool. And the hallmark of good marketing is getting engagement from people. With more than a million views of that video on Instagram alone, that’s solid marketing. The impression may be left that a chimp is piloting the drone, but nowhere does the Kody Antle post state that’s what’s happening.
The moral of the story? If you see something you can scarcely believe, maybe it’s worth a second look.
What do you think? Do you still believe a chimp is flying this drone? Did you ever believe it? Let us know in the comments below.