Drone used to track wildlife a world first

By Signe Cane 31 August 2015
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Australian researchers have developed a drone that can radio-track wildlife, which will improve conservation efforts

ELUSIVE AUSTRALIAN SPECIES may no longer evade detection by researchers, with the help of new drone tracking technology.

Researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) have teamed up with colleagues from the University of Sydney to develop a drone system for locating radio-tagged wildlife. The drone, believed to be a world-first tracker of this type, was successfully tested in the field by locating bettongs at Mulligan’s Flat, a woodland wildlife sanctuary in Canberra.

Fitting endangered wildlife with radio trackers or GPS devices is a commonplace method in ecology research, and a vital part of conservation practices in sanctuaries.

“You can understand what it is that the animal needs, so that you’re in a better position to be able to protect those elements of the environment that are important for their survival,” says ANU ecologist Dr Debbie Saunders, who was lead researcher of the drone development project.

But trekking after radio-tagged animals is challenging and time-consuming. Sometimes it means pushing through nearly impenetrable undergrowth, and at other times rocks can block the signal.

“What it entails is carrying around a one-to-two kilo receiver system, and holding an aerial in your hand up above your head,” Debbie explains. “Your arm gets tired very quickly, and you sometimes have to do it for hours to find an individual, depending on how difficult the terrain is.”

Drone does the hard work of tracking species

Thinking it would be nice to fly to tracking locations, Debbie teamed up with experts from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney. Over the past two years they have been building and testing the device together with the drone team led by Dr Robert Fitch.

The octocopter is a standard off-the-shelf unit that weighs less than 2kg. The team fitted the drone with a custom miniature receiver and antenna.

“It took lots of trial and error – we tried different aerials, different receivers, different levels of sensitivity, many iterations to get to where we are now,” says Debbie.

When the drone takes to the air, it does as 360° rotation, scanning multiple radio channels for each animal it needs to locate, and rapidly feeds the information to a laptop. “It then decides for itself where it needs to go next to maximise the information that it can get,” Debbie says.

A bettong is released back into the bush. Credit: Steve Corey/Woodlands and Wetlands Trust

Bettongs a test drive for drone tracking

Looking for a good test subject for the drone tracking, Debbie focussed on the eastern bettongs (Bettongia gaimardi) at the Mulligan’s Flat Goorooyarroo Woodland Experiment in Canberra.

“We’ve been looking at ways of rebuilding this ecosystem through manipulating the woodland,” says ANU associate professor Adrian Manning, conservation biologist and research leader for the experiment. At Mulligan’s Flat researchers have reintroduced 60 bettongs, a species extinct on mainland Australia for nearly 100 years due to invasive predators such as foxes.

A baby bettong. The species is a test case for using drones to track individuals released back into the bush. Credit: Adrian Manning

An important part of the reintroduction process is tracking the success of individuals. “[The traditional method] takes a lot of time to find the animals, but that’s the way everyone does it,” says Adrian. “The early indications are that it could save a lot of time if you can use this technology.” What would take researchers half a day’s work was reduced to 20 minutes, he said.

The new system has already attracted international attention. “I think that there’s a really great future,” says Debbie. “What we would really love is to get this technology to a point where any researcher can have it in the back of their ute when they’re going out to track something.”

The research was presented at a robotics symposium in July.