Using Drones to Track Radio-Tagged Wildlife

Radio collars, used to track movements of animals, are commonplace within the wildlife and conservation world, and pet owners are even taking advantage of them to locate their dogs and cats.

Tracking wildlife means that scientific researchers can observe migratory patterns and movements of free-ranging animals, and could even allow for tighter control of animal-borne diseases, such as avian influenza (H5N1). Data can be used for getting an insight into a creature’s daily life, land management, or improving conservation efforts.

Traditional radio tracking processes are largely manual, and occur over hours in harsh terrain the researchers say, and you cannot get to inaccessible locations. It can be very labour-intensive, and expensive too.

This is where the drone comes in.

Drone 1

“It enables us to fly a very small, lightweight and portable drone… anywhere in the landscape, and track wildlife in any number of areas” says Debbie Saunders, of Australian National University’s School of Environment and Society.

The device was developed by researchers at the Australian National University and the University of Sydney, and has taken two and a half years.

Originally the drone was intended to track small migratory birds, as because the birds don’t go back to the same place every year it was impossible to keep track of them. It was this that led Debbie Saunders to come up with the idea.

The drone is equipped with a custom-made receiver and antenna that provides real-time information on the whereabouts of radio-tagged wildlife, and the information is then used to create a map, showing the animal’s location and movement.

Tests were carried out on bettongs, also known as rat-kangaroos, in a sanctuary. They found the drone could successfully pick up miniature radio transmitters that weigh as little as one gram.

Drone 3

“Early indications are that the drones could save a huge amount of time,” says ANU Associate Professor Adrian Manning. “If you have two operators working and they can put the drone up in two bursts of 20 minutes, they can do what would take half a day or more to do using ground methods.”

The research team have conducted more than 150 test flights and say the system is now attracting international interest, and could be enlisted in efforts to learn about the world’s more reclusive species.

“There’s species out there that we don’t know much about because they live in difficult to reach environments,” says Saunders. “This is where it could come into its own, because it could track basically anything you can put a radio tag on.”

The findings were presented at the Robotics: Science and Systems conference in Rome, Italy, and the full paper is here.

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Laura Clarke

Laura Clarke

Laura is a Zoologist currently living in Portsmouth.
Laura Clarke

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