Firstly, I'd just like to say a big thank you to everyone who attended my Tech Tutors presentation last month. And secondly, thank you for your patience in allowing me to respond to your questions. If you have any further questions, please feel free to post them on the forum here or email me ([email protected]). I would love to hear from you!
Tech Tutors Q&A:
Carlos: I have one single question today: is Debbie or someone using fully autonomous drones in their projects? No human control ever? Here, they are banned, even in non-populated areas.
Debbie: Our first research prototypes were autonomous (Cliff et al. 2015; 2018), however it had to be able to be controlled manually if needed to comply with flight regulations.
However, the autonomous nature of that prototype meant that it wasn’t able to be readily adapted for use on a diversity of drone platforms as more advanced systems became available, and also recognised that wildlife researcher’s primary need was for a tracking system in the air rather than a robotic tracking system. However, one day we hope to again be able to integrate our system into large-scale fully autonomous monitoring programs. With our current system, once you are provided with bearings to all tags within range you can begin to make decisions about where the next best place to go is to get the most effective intersecting bearing lines.
Cliff, O. Saunders, D. and Fitch, R. (2018) Robotic Ecology: Tracking Small Dynamic Animals with an Autonomous Aerial Vehicle. Science Robotics Vol. 3, Issue 23, eaat8409.
Cliff, O., Fitch, R., Sukkarieh, S., Saunders, D.L. and Heinsohn, R. (2015). Online localisation of radio-tagged wildlife with an autonomous aerial robot system. Proceedings of Robotics: Science and Systems 2015, Rome, Italy, July.
Sol Milne: Amazing work! Has this worked for small, below skin tracking tags?
Debbie: Our system can track any very-high frequency (VHF) radio-tag from any tag manufacturer globally. This includes VHF-tags that are designed to be inserted under the animal’s skin. We have tested Giant Armadillo implant tags previously and have even been able to detect them from when they were 3 metres underground in a burrow (although they are actually pretty big tags!). The effect of having an implanted tag is the same for both drone and manual tracking – with no whip antenna the detection distance is shorter but it can typically still be detected.
Julian Dale: Can you provide a cost for your system? We are developing a system for a longer endurance fixed wing aircraft VTOL (2-4hr endurance) to cover large areas and with full autonomy. I would be interested to chat more about a collaboration if you are interested?
Debbie: Absolutely interested Julian! We definitely have both a fixed wing VTOL and full autonomy on our roadmap – it’s just a matter of getting to it. Please do get in touch ([email protected]) to discuss further and we can also give you some specific pricing for your project needs.
Julian Dale: Would it be possible to combine two antenna and SDR's to cover a wider swath on a fixed wing?
Debbie: This certainly may be possible, but it would need to be thoroughly tested with both the pros & cons considered, such as extra complexity in the code, extra hardware housing and integration etc.
Paul: Q about RF (RT?)- have you looked into using Bluetooth Low Energy or LoRa instead of VHF? Bluetooth or Lora Gateway on the drone would look for signals, vast amount lighter - but not sure about range, hence my question, thank you all the same.
Debbie: When developing our system we decided that rather than trying to invent a new type of miniature tag which has it’s own inherent challenges, we wanted to develop a better way to detect and track VHF tags that are already used all around the world. Having said this, we have explored various alternatives in terms of communications and data transfer such as LoRa but found our setup to perform more reliably and to have much greater communication ranges (tested for real time data feeds out to 2.5km currently).
Arky: Wonder if this system could be adapted for fixed wing drones / Vertical take-off and land (VTOL) systems that could be useful in some use-cases.
Debbie: Yes, it can be. We are currently in the process of exploring the best way for our system to be adapted onto a fixed-wing drone platform and it is a key part of our development roadmap. We can see many advantages and applications for using fixed-wing drones – especially as they are typically able to search much larger areas!
Rob: Hi Debbie, this system is amazing! I am so with Steph (what I could've done with this 10 or 15 years ago)! I was wondering, can your system work with SensorGnome-style coded VHF tags?
Debbie: The key issue with tracking coded tags using our system is that they are all on the same frequency. Our system works by finding the maximum signal for each unique frequency so having lots of tags in all different directions but with the same frequency wouldn’t work. Having said this, I have wondered whether we would be able to ramp up the interrogation of coded tag signals, detect them all and decode them on the fly so that they can be located. But I’m sure my tech team would roll their eyes at me over that one since I am sure it would quite challenging to do. But if you have any good ideas on how this may be achieved we’d be happy to give it a shot!
Sophie: Provided an Argos goniometer on board the drone, you could detect the animal equipped with an Argos tag as well?
Debbie: I’m not sure exactly what signals the goniometer is detecting, however if the Argos tag (or any other tag) includes a standard VHF radio signal as a back up option in case the tag fails then we can track it with our system regardless of who the tag manufacturer is. This may not work if they don’t use VHF radio-signals.
Sophie: Do you have a system to recover the drone in case of loss?
Debbie: If you wanted to put a radio-tag on your drone as well as on your animals, then our system could certainly track them both as long as they are within the detection range of the tag. The detection range varies depending on size, with small tags having shorter detection distances.
Pascal: Have you tried/considered using an automatic direction finder system (which can 'virtually rotate' its beam direction using a phased array of multiple antennas)? And/or continuously recording the received radio signal for (additional) later offline analysis?
Debbie: Yes indeed, we have considered and explored both of these options. The use of a phase array creates many interesting hardware and software challenges when considering a lightweight, robust system that can be used on a drone, and although there could certainly be benefits in such a system we found that the costs generally outweighed the benefits. In terms of collecting data and processing it later, this is currently possible as well as real time data collection. However one of the key advantages of our current system is that you are not “flying blind” since you can see exactly what signals you are/aren’t picking up and their directions which means that your data collection is much more targeted and effective.
Melissa: How does the drone work in high wind? What is the max wind speed you can fly it in? Also, what was the updated the flight time after your initial troubleshooting (if it got better than 10 minutes)?
Debbie: The system can work in high wind but the error margins around estimated locations will be larger due to the buffeting effect of the wind on the magnetometer which provides the bearings. If all you want to see is that you can detect your animals wind wouldn’t matter too much, but if you are aiming to get accurate locations you will find they will have larger errors than if you flew in calmer conditions. If it is really windy and the drone is working really hard to maintain it’s location you will also notice that it can tilt quite a lot and so in this case the antenna may be pointing at the sky instead of across the landscape and so would be less likely to detect tags. It’s always a good idea to fly within the recommended wind speed rating of your drone (from memory the DJI Matrice 210 recommended max wind speed is 10 m/s.
Julian: Can you tune your system to cope with radio interference from different aircraft? [ STEPH: is this duke julian? If so - we might hold this question]
Debbie: Not exactly sure what interference from different aircraft you are referring to sorry, but dealing with radio-interference is certainly one of the greatest challenges when listening for low powered tags in our noisy radio world! However, we do have a nice combination of hardware and software that enable us to eliminate or manage a range of different potential interferers both within and outside of the target frequency bands.
Liam: You mentioned earlier that you were interested in the migration routes of the parrots - have you tested the use of your system for migration pathways in any other species? And how do you work with the battery limitations?
Debbie: We haven’t had the opportunity to use our system to understand the full migratory pathways of swift parrots yet since we are currently unable to use long-term attachments on this species so we have had to focus on tracking them within their winter range instead – but we’re super keen to get there one day! We haven’t tested it along migration pathways as such, but rather we have tracked other migratory species within their winter foraging range. Would be great fun to try tracking along an entire migratory path though!
Miguel: Drones are usually very noisy. Don't animals run away when they hear the drone? Or does it fly high enough that it doesn't disturb the animals? How high can it fly while being able to get the data?
Debbie: Radio-tracking from a drone is less disruptive to most species compared to manually radio-tracking on foot, or using other drone sensors like visual or thermal cameras. This is because our system doesn’t require you to fly directly above or in close proximity of the animals you are tracking in order to get their location. Our system detects signals from distance, determines bearings and then triangulates the animal’s location. Filghts are generally limited to below 120m however we typically fly at around 40m or so depending on the height of the vegetation (at least this is the specific regulation height in Australia).
Isla Duporge: Thanks Ellie, I was just wondering how many have been made, cost of hiring and whether there is the intention to be able to sell them to researchers.
Debbie: So far we have made 30 of these systems and we are happy to provide you with specific costing details for your project if you would like to get in touch ([email protected] ). They are only available for hire, not to buy, but unlike most equipment hire arrangements, we provide full technical support for you and your team should you need any help or guidance. Also, given the tech is advancing all the time, if you have a long term project we will upgrade your system each year with the latest model!
Phoebe Griffith: Similar question to above, I was wondering if they might be possible to purchase (rather than hire) for long term tracking projects (we track animals for 2+ years), and if so what the approx costs are?
Same response as above:
We are happy to provide you with specific costing details for your project if you would like to get in touch ([email protected] ). They are only available for hire, not to buy, but unlike most equipment hire arrangements, we provide full technical support for you and your team should you need any help or guidance. Also, given the tech is advancing all the time, if you have a long term project we will upgrade your system each year with the latest model!
Rob: Have you had a chance to look at using tags/untagged animals for abundance (e.g. koalas) or survival studies, as your drones can cover so much area
Debbie: Yes, so we are currently in the process of using both thermal and radio-tracking drone technology to find both tagged and untagged animals at the same site. We recognise that not all animals can be tagged and have found that thermal technology can help fill that gap. The great thing about drones is that they are capable of carrying multiple sensors, allowing you to collect a diverse range of data.
Sean: Are you using an "off the shelf" flight platform or is it bespoke?
Debbie: Our system is able to be mounted onto off-the-shelf drone platforms that can carry a 1kg payload, such as the DJI Matrice 210 and similar models.
Carly: Also, this might be a stupid question, but can these things go up at night? E.g. tracking nocturnal animals.
Debbie: No such thing as a stupid question! They are all good! Drones can certainly be flown at night to track nocturnal animals. However, it should be noted that in most places, you’ll need to be a licensed drone pilot and have special authorisation to fly at night. We recommend that you check your local area’s drone rules and regulations for more information on this before you fly.