Satellite-connected Raspberry Pi cameras allows for real-time monitoring of Antarctic penguins

Instant Wild satellite camera monitoring system
© Alasdair Davies, ZSL

By pairing a solar-powered satellite-enabled camera with the tiny but powerful Raspberry Pi microcomputer, scientists will be able to remotely monitor, and perhaps learn how to help, the declining populations of a distinctive polar bird.

Populations of one of the most iconic animals in Antarctic, the extremely hardy and resilient Emperor penguin, are being affected by a number of different factors in their environment, including climate change, pollution, diseases, and impacts on fisheries, leading researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to predict their rapid decline, and potential extinction, over the next century.

Because both the Emperor and the Adelie penguins depend on sea ice for some of their food sources, as well as for breeding, melting sea ice due to global temperature rise is at least partly to blame for declining penguin populations. A study from WHOI predicts that out of today's population of 3,000 breeding pairs of Emperor penguins, there may only be about 500 to 600 breeding pairs surviving by the year 2100.

Keeping tabs on penguins in the harsh environment of Antarctica with remote cameras and monitoring equipment used to mean that once the cameras were set up and operating, scientists had to return to the sites to retrieve the memory cards with the photos on them. But thanks to an innovative application of the Raspberry Pi platform and the Iridium satellite network by the technology firm Cambridge Consultants, scientists studying populations of the Emperor and Adelie penguins will be able to receive high-resolution photos from Antarctica in real time, without having to go anywhere.

The remote monitoring solution, which consists of the Instant Wild satellite node and camera system, is similar to the one deployed in Kenya to help stop poaching, but is built to withstand the harsh Antarctic weather conditions, including temperatures as low as -45 degrees Fahrenheit.

Currently deployed on Antarctica’s Yalour Islands, the system consists of three cameras, one of which monitors the system itself, connected by a wireless hub that will transmit the images, the temperature, location data, and updates on battery life using the Iridium satellite network.

The Raspberry Pi-equipped system uses a passive infrared sensor to trigger the microprocessor inside the unit to wake up the cameras and take images, both in the daytime and at night. Power for the cameras comes from external lead acid Gel Cell batteries, which are enclosed in a Pelican case and charged with a solar panel, and are expected to last about a year before needing to be replaced.

"The battery was housed in the Pelican case to protect it and we used heavy rocks wrapped in chicken wire to create posts on which the cameras were attached. The antenna was pointed, the battery and solar power connected and then we were ready to turn the three cameras were deploying on. One camera was pointed at the actual equipment to send back photographs of the system's integrity and to get a visual photograph that the gear was all intact and not buried in snow and ice." - Penguin Lifelines

If this remote monitoring solution can survive for a year on the Yalour Islands, the team behind the project hopes to set up more of them for long-term testing in other areas of Antarctica.

These cameras will help to aid the Penguin Lifelines project, which was created by renowned Penguinologist (yes, that's a thing) Dr. Tom Hart, and will be used in collaboration with WHOI, Oxford University, Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Oceanites and Stony Brook University.

Satellite-connected Raspberry Pi cameras allows for real-time monitoring of Antarctic penguins
Scientists will be able to easier monitor the population of penguins, thanks to a high-tech solar-powered remote camera setup.

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