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Researchers develop world’s first drone for real-time wildlife tracking

Tracking wild animals to study their behavior takes effort. Not only do you have to tag the animals so you can find them, you also have to locate these tags using satellite, cellular or even handheld receivers. This technology works successfully with larger animals, but it often lacks the precision to track tinier animals, such as small migratory birds.

This is slowly beginning to change, though. Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) and The University of Sydney hope to improve current wildlife tracking technology and extend it to smaller species and more remote locations using drones equipped with miniature radio receivers.

Wildlife ecologist and lead researcher Dr. Debbie Saunders has been working on the drone-based tracking technology for the past eight years at ANU with help from Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney. She and her team have developed the world’s first radio-tracking drone system for wildlife monitoring, which uses an off-the-shelf drone equipped with an antenna and a miniature receiver to provide real-time data that can be monitored live on a laptop computer.

wildlife tracking drone
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The system currently is being tested on bettongs (a small marsupial commonly known as the rat-kangaroo) at the Mulligan’s Flat woodland sanctuary in Canberra, Australia. After using the drone in more than 150 test flights, researchers have been able to track radio transmitters as small as one gram in the field. The system is not only efficient, accomplishing in 40 minutes what would take a half a day for a field researcher on the ground; it also extends the range of tracking to terrain that is difficult for a human to access on foot or by vehicle.

The drone-based tracking is being developed in Australia, but the technology is generating interest from researchers around the world, says ACFR robotics researcher Oliver Cliff. A research paper detailing the drone technology was presented recently at Robotics: Science and Systems and is available online for review.