Research Drones Can Quickly Track Tagged Wildlife

Video screen capture. Australian National University

Wildlife tracking is time-consuming. Even when tagged, finding animals that are part of a study is tricky, especially when they can fly, head underground or travel within a large range of land.

Scientists can spend days tracking wildlife to plot their locations and movements. Researchers from Australian National University wanted to speed things up so that scientist could be learning more while searching less. They developed the world's first radio-tracking drone that can locate tagged animals in a fraction of the time it takes to do so on the ground.

"Early indications are that the drones could save a huge amount of time. 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," said ANU Associate Professor Adrian Manning.

The small robots are made from an off-the-shelf unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The researchers added a custom-built miniature receiver and antenna that provide real-time information on radio-tracked wildlife. When animals are identified by the receiver, the locations are mapped live on a laptop.

In testing, the drones were able to find radio tags as small as one gram, which will make it useful for tracking small wildlife like migratory birds as well as larger collared animals. The researchers used the drones to find tiny bettongs in Mulligan’s Flat woodland sanctuary in Canberra.

"The small aerial robot will allow researchers to more rapidly and accurately find tagged wildlife, gain insights into movements of some of the world's smallest and least known species, and access areas that are otherwise inaccessible," said Dr. Debbie Saunders from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society.

While the drone still needs a bit more tweaking, the team is hoping to get the technology into the hands of researchers around the world.