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Parrot-inspired robots track birds across remote landscapes

  • Written by  Chris Fitch
  • Published in Wildlife
Parrot-inspired robots track birds across remote landscapes
11 Dec
A new system of robotic aerial vehicles is revolutionising the tracking of migratory species across remote environments

Wildlife tracking is nothing new, but it’s certainly not without limitations. When pursuing animals – particularly birds – across rough terrain, traditional methods such as VHF tracking can become inordinately challenging, with the necessity to attach trackers to individual animals, the signal of which can become lost within rugged and uneven landscapes. One such example are the endangered swift parrots of Riverina in New South Wales, Australia, which migrate across a large region, and are among those whose unpredictable movements are unsuitable for traditional tracking methods. 

A newly developed fleet of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) aims to solve this problem. ‘The swift parrot was the original inspiration for the development of the system, since we were faced with the daunting task of trying to locate these small, migratory birds that move dynamically across vast landscapes,’ explains Debra Saunders, a researcher in conservation ecology at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. ‘In terms of conservation management we needed to shed light on their movements so we could better protect the habitats they depend on. Swift parrots are too small to attach large satellites or GPS tags, therefore we had to track radio tags to study their movements. But they use different areas of habitat each year depending on where their food is available, so we had to find a new way to search large landscapes more efficiently.’

UAV inflightThe swift parrot was the inspiration for the new UAVs (Image: Stuart Hay, ANU)

Because of the unique characteristics of these particular UAVs, they need only fly in the near vicinity of the parrots to sense them and track their whereabouts (as opposed to other systems that need to fly directly overhead for a visual sighting). This means the birds appear unperturbed by their presence. ‘One of the key aims of radio-tracking wildlife is to understand and observe natural behaviour so the last thing you would want to do is disturb the animals you are tracking,’ adds Saunders. ‘Our system uses sensors that listen for tag signals, and works most effectively at a distance so it can triangulate the animal’s location without disturbing it.’

Developments in robotics are also improving the lifting capacity and flight duration of UAVs and Saunders points to their future potential: ‘This provides a key step forward in the development of more advanced, integrated and autonomous environmental monitoring systems. It means that we can now track animals in more remote and rugged landscapes that were previously inaccessible, and shed light on species that have been prohibitively difficult to track until now.’

This was published in the December 2018  edition of Geographical magazine 

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