The Smithsonian will use planes and satellites to track animals

The Smithsonian Institution has partnered with aviation and aerospace industry leaders to create precise, near real-time animal tracking systems.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor
asian elephant Shanthi receives a collar.png
The Smithsonian Institution has partnered with aviation and aerospace industry leaders to create precise, near real-time animal tracking systems. Meet Partners in the Sky

Understanding what drives animal movement could help us monitor the spread of infectious disease, reduce human-animal conflicts, combat poaching, mitigate climate effects, and possibly save species from extinction, a Smithsonian press release explains.

More than 6,000 species migrate. It occurs almost everywhere in the world and often spans thousands of miles. Yet more than 90 percent of the animals are too small to track; for larger species, these sorts of tracking technologies are prohibitively expensive, fail often, and have limited range and resolution.

"By bringing together the scientific expertise of the Smithsonian with this roster of partners and their technological assets, we will take a quantum leap forward in our understanding of migration and make a real and lasting impact on biodiversity," Steve Monfort of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute said in a press release

That roster includes: Airbus, Intel, Iridium Communications Inc., Joubeh, Lockheed Martin, Michael Goldfarb Associates, Raytheon, Rockwell Collins and United Airlines. Pennsylvania State University's Applied Research Laboratory has also joined in.

Here are the four key parts: 

  1. The 1 Gram Challenge -- miniaturizing tracking devices to 1 gram or less will help pinpoint the precise movement of birds and other small migratory animals, like amphibians, remotely. 
  2. Satellite Technology -- increasing data transmission and making tracking devices more affordable, reliable, and ideally lasting the lifetime of an animal. Low-orbit satellite networks could track animals anywhere in the world at any time.
  3. Commercial Aircraft -- equipping aircraft with antennae and receivers to collect and relay data from transmitter-tagged wildlife to users on the ground. (Partnering directly with commercial airlines to use existing transmitters and leverage a network of this scale is unprecedented in animal tracking, according to the Smithsonian.)
  4. Big Data -- integrating tracking with environmental satellite data into a comprehensive platform will help scientists predict and model animal movement. 

When SCBI’s Peter Leimgruber first showed a radio collar for elephants to Allan McArtor of Airbus Americas, the aerospace executive was not impressed, ScienceInsider reports:

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, to showcase the potential of the technologies, the National Zoo's 37-year-old Asian elephant Shanthi (pictured) as well as wild elephants in Sri Lanka have been collared with tracking devices; their positions will be displayed on the zoo's website. Also included: three recently tagged black-crowned night herons

The industry partners have already contributed nearly $200,000, ScienceInsider reports, but more funding is needed for the Smithsonian to go further.

Image: Abby Wood, Smithsonian National Zoo via Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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