New drone quickly tracks radio-tagged wildlife


New radio-tracking drones are capable of detecting tiny radio transmitters weighing as little as one gram, and could be used to locate and track tagged creatures, according to research presented earlier this summer at the Robotics: Science and Systems conference in Rome.

The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were developed by experts from the Australian National University and the University of Sydney, and have successfully been used to track bettongs at the Mulligan’s Flat woodland sanctuary in Canberra, lead researcher Dr. Debbie Saunders from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society explained.

According to Dr. Saunders, the drone will make it possible to find tagged wildlife more quickly and more accurately, allowing scientists to better track the movements of some smaller, lesser-known animals. It will also make it possible to track them in previously inaccessible areas.

The system, which has already been involved in more than 150 test flights, was developed over the course of two and a half years and consists of an off-the-shelf UAV with a miniature, custom made receiver and antenna which can provide real-time tracking data on tagged wildlife.

Tracking drones could prove to be huge time-savers

Dr. Saunders originally came up with the idea eight years ago as a way to track small dynamic migratory birds such as the endangered swift parrot, and fellow researcher Oliver Cliff from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at the University of Sydney added that the UAV technology had already attracted significant international interest.

“It is not an easy process, but we believe we’ve come up with a solution,” he said. “We’ve had interest in our system from all around the world. We are still doing some fine tuning but we’ve achieved more than has ever been done before, which is exciting.”

“Radio tracking of collars manually is very time consuming,” added ANU associate professor Adrian Manning, who helped by attaching VHF and GPS collars on the bettongs at Mulligan’s Flat. “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.”

Of course, as researchers from the University of Minnesota, St. Paul found earlier this month, using drone might not be the best way to keep tabs on wild animals, as Dr. Mark Ditmer and his colleagues found that UAVs used to observe creatures in their natural habitats could cause the heart rates of American black bears to soar by as much as 400 percent.


(Image credit: Stuart Hay/Australian National University)