“Internet of animals” will start operating in 2019 | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

“Internet of animals” will start operating in 2019 An international research consortium is preparing to embark on an ambitious project to track animal migration flows of all kinds from space on a global scale (photo: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology)

“Internet of animals” will start operating in 2019

December 19, 2018

By Elton Alisson  |  Agência FAPESP – Billions of wild animals move over land, through the air and in the oceans every day, connecting the most remote and inaccessible regions on Earth. Observation of their movements in quasi-real time is difficult because the conventional satellite technology used to track animals worldwide excludes small birds and mammals, which account for some 75% of the total.

Furthermore, the mobile telephone networks used to track animals cover only some parts of the world and are absent from open country, mountains, forests, deserts and oceans. VHF/UHF direct communications lack the requisite range. Satellite telephone systems cannot be sufficiently miniaturized, according to experts in the field.

A solution to this problem could come from the sky. An international research consortium is preparing to activate an ambitious project to track animal migration flows of all kinds from space on a global scale.

Data collected by the project, called ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) and led by the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in partnership with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and DLR, its German counterpart, is scheduled to be released for scientific use in January 2019.

“The project will provide information that will enable us to understand the lives of animals much better and to identify wildlife biodiversity hotspots and regions where biodiversity has been lost,” said Daniel Piechowski, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, in a presentation delivered on November 27, 2018, to the FAPESP-Max Planck Frontiers of Science Symposium.

“In addition, it will enable us to achieve a better understanding of how zoonotic diseases spread between animals and humans, make new discoveries about climate change, and predict natural disasters, among other applications,” Piechowski said.

Tiny electronic tags developed by the project’s researchers in the past 16 years will be implanted in the animals. Each tag contains a GPS receiver and 3D accelerometer, as well as sensors to measure temperature, humidity, air pressure and altitude. The scientists will be able to collect data on the ambient temperature, the animals’ heart rate, their acceleration and orientation relative to Earth’s magnetic field, and their migration patterns.

The devices are also equipped with solar panels and rechargeable batteries so that they can operate in energy-saving mode. 

The geolocation tags currently implanted in birds consume a relatively large amount of power transmitting data over cellular networks or satellite systems, according to Piechowski.

“The tags developed for the project use a special code-division multiple access (CDMA) modulation scheme to communicate with satellites with very little power,” he explained.

The smallest tags weigh 2.5 grams, but the researchers plan to reduce their weight and size even further for use with bees and locusts, for example.

“Tags fitted to animals should ideally weigh no more than 3% of their body mass in order not to affect their natural behavior,” Piechowski said.

The data collected by the sensors in the tags are captured by three antennas, each weighing 200 kilos, sent to the International Space Station (ISS) by a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft borne aloft on a Soyuz launcher in February 2017 and installed in August 2018. The antennas joined a computer that had been sent up in October 2017. These will be the project’s ears and brain.

As soon as a tag is within range of the ICARUS transmitter on the ISS, which occurs approximately four times a day, it starts a communication sequence by listening to the downlink data stream from the orbiting computer. It then has two seconds to send its own position coordinates and the sensor data gathered since the last contact.

The computer on board the ISS separates, parses and cleans up the data before relaying it to a ground station. All data — except sensitive species conservation data such as rhino locations — will be published on MoveBank, an open-source, online database the team has developed.

“In sum, the project is an Internet of Things via satellite, or an ‘Internet of Animals’ that connects them with humans,” Piechowski said.

By the beginning of 2019 the project will have 1,000 transmitters in the field, but the researchers hope to increase the number to 100,000 in the near term. 

Combating global epidemics

The consortium’s expectation is that knowledge about the movements of animals in different parts of Earth and the ways they interact with humans will help combat global epidemics, for example.

Approximately 70% of global epidemics, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus and bird flu, originate as zoonotic diseases caused by interactions between wildlife, productive livestock and humans. Information on global animal movements is indispensable in today’s internationally networked world to help predict outbreaks of such diseases and protect human health, the researchers believe.

To this end they need answers to fundamental questions such as where an animal is at any point in its life, its internal state and energy consumption, its behavioral activities, and why it dies, all of which will help protect wildlife as well.

“None of these fundamental questions has been sufficiently answered for animals living in the wild for medium to long periods, especially for small animals that are of paramount importance to mankind, such as songbirds and fruit bats, many of which disseminate diseases,” Piechowski said.

Mass animal movement tracking data can also help combat agricultural pests and provide early warning of geological disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, according to the researchers.

On their way south, for example, storks often rest in the vicinity of locust breeding grounds on the southern edge of the Sahara. The birds show exactly where these swarms of insects are and where they may migrate next.

In field tests of the system, fitting larger animals with the tags and collecting data via land-based antenna, the German researchers were able to predict eruptions of Italy’s Mount Etna six hours in advance by observing patterns of goat movements on the volcano’s slopes.

“We know species like elephants are able to sense the imminence of earthquakes. We can study the behavior of these and other animals to help predict natural disasters or gauge the impact of climate change and deforestation more accurately, for example,” Piechowski said.

Brazil-Germany cooperation

Held for the first time in Brazil and organized jointly by FAPESP and the Max Planck Society, the Frontiers of Science Symposium took place on November 27-28 in São Paulo, with the aim of fostering collaboration in science and technological development between researchers in São Paulo State and the Max Planck institutes.

“This symposium is a great opportunity for FAPESP to bolster research cooperation with the Max Planck Society, with which we have an agreement that has been highly effective. We’ve issued two calls for proposals to date, in order to select projects developed by young researchers,” said FAPESP Vice President Eduardo Moacyr Krieger in his opening address to the event.

Before São Paulo, the symposium was held in Valparaíso (Chile), Buenos Aires (Argentina), and Mexico City. The next edition will take place in Havana, Cuba.

“The Max Planck Society has a tradition of engaging in international research collaborations. The projects we support in Brazil in partnership with research funding agencies like FAPESP have been highly successful,” said Hajo Freund, representing Max Planck.


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