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Where's That Elephant Headed? Smithsonian and Industry Partner to Improve Animal Tracking

6 December 2013 3:30 pm
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Where do I go? A public-private partnership hopes to improve tracking devices to routinely follow elephants and much smaller animals.

Partners in the Sky

Where do I go? A public-private partnership hopes to improve tracking devices to routinely follow elephants and much smaller animals.

With a list of partners that reads like a Who’s Who of technology companies, the Smithsonian Institution today formally announced a new program to dramatically improve the ability of scientists to remotely track the movements of wild animals—perhaps over their whole lives. While still lacking a business plan and definite funding, Partners in the Sky has nonetheless set four goals for the new research and conservation effort, which will rely on industry support, says Peter Leimgruber, a conservation biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia.

Already, researchers seeking to follow animals as they move through the environment have made much progress. Radio collars and other tracking devices are shrinking and lasting longer on more compact power supplies. Some tracking efforts make use of satellites for uploading data; others set up networks of transmitters in forests or other natural areas to pick up signals from tagged individuals. But scientists are still unable to track most of the 6000 or so species that migrate, because most are too small to carry even the small 3- to 5-gram devices now available, Leimgruber says. Furthermore, the devices now available can be unreliable and expensive, with limited opportunities to transmit the data.

When Leimgruber first showed a radio collar for elephants to Allan McArtor, chairman of jetliner-maker Airbus Americas Inc., the aerospace executive was not impressed. The satellite radios "were big bulges the size of a volleyball," McArtor recalls. He thought, "our aerospace industry deals with these technologies all the time. There's got to be a better way." So a year ago, McArtor brought together engineers from about 15 aerospace and other companies and convinced them to pitch in their expertise. Now, Partners in the Sky includes Airbus, Intel, Iridium Communications Inc., Joubeh, Lockheed Martin, Michael Goldfarb Associates, Raytheon, Rockwell Collins, and United Airlines. Students from Pennsylvania State University’s Applied Research Laboratory also have funding to try their hand at improving tracking technology.

There are other initiatives to improve tracking devices. "What makes us a bit different is the diversity of industry partners that we are bringing to this," Leimgruber says. "We're hoping to really propel this [field] forward."

The first goal is to tweak existing tracking technology to make devices more reliable, cheaper, and longer lasting, so that researchers can follow many individuals, perhaps over their entire lifetimes. Another goal is to build a 1-gram tag that can be used on birds and amphibians too tiny to be outfitted safely with existing devices. With United Airlines, researchers will look into putting antennae and receivers on commercial airplanes that could relay data back to researchers; by using planes, which are closer to the ground than satellites, researchers could reduce the transmission energy costs for the tags. Finally, the partnership seeks to improve the use of these data with better database and analysis tools.

The industry partners have already contributed in kind and monetary support approaching $200,000, Leimgruber says. But "we need to have funding to go further," says Peter Marra, an ornithologist at SCBI who hopes much of that support will come from the industry partners. In an interview with ScienceInsider, McArtor was noncommittal. "We got it going," he says. "We will help them with fundraising, and we have some engineering resources that will stay close to the project, but it will be a Smithsonian project going forward."