Research ArticleSENSORS

Robotic ecology: Tracking small dynamic animals with an autonomous aerial vehicle

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Science Robotics  17 Oct 2018:
Vol. 3, Issue 23, eaat8409
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aat8409


Understanding animal movements that underpin ecosystem processes is fundamental to ecology. Recent advances in animal tags have increased the ability to remotely locate larger species; however, this technology is not suitable for up to 70% of the world’s bird and mammal species. The most widespread technique for tracking small animals is to manually locate low-power radio transmitters from the ground with handheld equipment. Despite this labor-intensive technique being used for decades, efforts to reduce or automate this process have had limited success. Here, we present an approach for tracking small radio-tagged animals by using an autonomous and lightweight aerial robot. We present experimental results where we used the robot to locate critically endangered swift parrots (Lathamus discolor) within their winter range. The system combines a miniaturized sensor with newly developed estimation algorithms to yield unambiguous bearing- and range-based measurements with associated measures of uncertainty. We incorporated these measurements into Bayesian data fusion and information-based planning algorithms to control the position of the robot as it collected data. We report estimated positions that lie within about 50 meters of the true positions of the birds on average, which are sufficiently accurate for recapture or observation. Further, in comparison with experienced human trackers from locations where the signal was detectable, the robot produced a correct estimate as fast or faster than the human. These results provide validation of robotic systems for wildlife radio telemetry and suggest a way for widespread use as human-assistive or autonomous devices.

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