Insights from BCC Research

Into the Wild: Drone Technology

Posted by Clayton Luz on Jul 12, 2016 6:00:00 AM

Wildlife biologists and ecologists are starved for research data because current technologies for tracking small animals are time-intensive and produce low sample sizes. For example, wildlife biologist Carol Chambers with Northern Arizona University (NAU) has spent years tracking and studying bats. After a small radio transmitter is glued to a bat and it flies away, she and her team have to track the transmitter’s signal to recapture it, often conducting forays across rugged terrain.

Now, thanks to the National Science Foundation (NSF), NAU researchers have been awarded a grant to develop an unmanned aerial vehicle to find animals in the wild that are carrying tiny transmitting tags. The technology has potential to vastly improve the ability to track small wildlife.
“It could make our work more efficient because people won’t have to drive around for days searching for transmitters, often hiking long distances and up to the tops of hills and mountains to find bat roosts,” says Chambers, who primarily works to protect maternity bat roost habitats.
“Better and faster is what we are shooting for,” says Michael Shafer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at NAU, who is named on the NSF grant with Flikkema and Chambers.
A drone is an automatic machine that is mobile in nature. Drones are not fixed to one location in the same manner as general robots, and they have the ability to move. Drone types include unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), and unmanned marine vehicles (UMVs).
Drones have wide applications in industry, military and security environments. They are also used as consumer products for entertainment and domestic applications, according to Sinha Guarav, an analyst with BCC Research.
“Drones are primarily used for military applications, but they can perform services such as wildfire detection and firefighting, disaster relief, and search and rescue operations,” Guarav says. “They can work in dangerous areas or be deployed to observe specific areas to avert incidents or provide all the essential support to the forces in the event of accidents or environmental disasters.”
NAU’s drone technology could make their work more efficient. People won’t have to drive around for days searching for transmitters, often hiking long distances and up to the tops of hills and mountains to find bat roosts. Wildlife biologists have an easier time studying larger animals because they use GPS-enabled tags. Those sensors are usually too heavy for bats, birds and other small animals, which need small, specialized radio-transmitting tags.
“We will help these wildlife trackers do their jobs and improve information gathering. Instead of using hand or pole-mounted antennas, we will put an them on a UAV that can go up hundreds of feet and leverage the three-dimensional flight capabilities to more easily locate the radio tag signals,” Shafer says.
“We are developing a new UAV that is not available anywhere commercially,” says Flikkema. “The technology is a great synthesis of a mobile platform with sophisticated electronics and software that together can help find and track small animals.”
The NSF grant of $601,896 is applied to instrument development for biological research. Instead of funding new science, NSF is funding NAU’s new tool development with the goal of quick distribution to the scientific community.

Topics: Instrumentation and Sensors