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Small Focus, Bigger Picture

May 15, 2006 By: Melanie Martella, Sensors


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For all our recent talk about ubiquitous sensing and the capabilities it enables, to my mind some of the most interesting applications are cropping up in academia.

Dragonflies Migrate?

A recent story on the BBC's site illustrates this point nicely.  Researchers at Princeton's Wikelski Physiological Ecology Lab successfully tagged dragonflies with tiny radio transmitters to track dragonfly migration paths and behavior and published their research in Biology Letters.  While the power limitations meant the researchers could only gather 10 days worth of data, they still managed to glean data on migration strategies used: if you meet a large body of water, for example, (and you're a migrating dragonfly), you change direction. Apparently migrating songbirds do similar things.

Driving Needs

I note with interest that, although the team had to use an airplane to pick up and record the signals for this project, one of its future aims is to track low-power wireless transmitters from a satellite.  "The dream scenario would be to get a satellite to pick up the signals from these transmitters," said Professor Wilcove (one of the authors of the paper), according to the BBC article.

"If you had a satellite like that you could [follow the migration of] all kinds of birds, dragonflies, and locusts; and, I think, it would shed tremendous light on the movements of these organisms."

Don't dismiss this as a pure scientific curiosity. Take a look at this overview from USAID of the 2004 Locust Emergency.  Now imagine having a good enough understanding of locust migration patterns and triggers that you can better predict locust swarms and at least mitigate the massive damage they can cause.

Bird flu is another application. According to this WHO fact sheet on Bird flu, migrating waterfowl have been a significant vector for spreading the more pathogenic version of the H5N1 virus. There's no reason that the same technology used to track migrating songbirds can't be used to track waterfowl.

The Bottom Line

These novel kinds of sensor data (and extremely novel approaches to acquiring same) enable an unprecedented picture of animal or insect behavior.  This richly textured picture highlights behaviors and underlying logic of the lifeforms being studied.  It's an extreme example of the increasing importance of sensor data in our lives.

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