Editorial Feature

Robots to Monitor Wildlife

The use of automatic equipment for observing wildlife has become very common and there are a number of advanced cameras used for this purpose. Biology field work is highly labor intensive; however, it is becoming more sophisticated.

Intelligent specialist software and sensors help biologists by enhancing the selection of images captured and stored as well as the response of remote systems to live imaging needs.

Tele-operated and automated equipment increases observation potential greatly while at the same time avoids the disturbance of human presence. This article discusses hardware and software developments in robotic cameras for wildlife observation.

Research

The tracking of moving targets without detection requires not only visual expertise but also acoustic stealth.

This research attempts to combine acoustic and visual stealth to retain continued line-of-sight observation to a moving object of interest in outdoor conditions without being identified.

In order to achieve this, researchers have developed and demonstrated solutions with regards to real-time selection of monitoring locations of environments that have been previously unmapped reducing the robot’s visual conspicuousness and offers an opportunity for observation and camouflage.

In order to reduce the acoustic conspicuousness of the robot, spectral content, periodicity and amplitude of noise sources are monitored offering a high probability of making up for any ego noise (noise generated by the motion of a robot) and are cyclic enough to be predictable.

Examples of distracting sounds are vehicles and machinery for built environments; mobile phones and vehicles in urban environments; and wind and wildlife in natural environments.

The robot can learn its own ego-noise in real time and enable characterization and compensation of a number of terrain types.

The robot can also use and recognise shadows as discreet vantage points.

The integration of biomimetic robots in a fish school allows reserachers to understand the group behaviour of fish and how they react in large groups.

This is a novel experimental method that will help in testing the response of fish to behavioural changes of a biomimetic robots. This research involved the analysis of a robotic fish and individual golden shiners swimming along with each other in a water tunnel.

The positional preference and flow structure of the fish with respect to the robot was studied using a digital particle image velocimetry system. Biomimetic locomotion determines fish preference because fish prefer to move towards the robot when its tail is beating rather than when its tail is static.

This study emphasises the fact that it is possible to strengthen interactions between humans and robots making it possible to study and modulate collective animal behaviour.

In an underwater vehicle designing experiment conducted in 2011, biomimetic robots performed better than conventional robots.

This research describes the design of a propulsion system and how the depth of a robotic fish can be controlled.

An undulating fin (part of the fin that produces a sinusoidal wave) has been designed inspired by knife fish to produce a propulsive force.

The research also discusses the relation between the phase angles and the individual fin segment with the overall fin trajectory.

It is possible to adjust and direct the propulsive force for fish robot manoeuvre using a mechanical system having two servomotors.

A wireless control system helps these servomotors control the depth and direction of swimming.

Field trials have been conducted in an outdoor pool so that the relation between fin parameters such as the number of phase, undulatory amplitude and phase difference are demonstrated.

Field Work

There are thousands of wildlife photographers exploring the beautiful forests around us and capturing stunning pictures of animals.

In order to obtain superb shots, it becomes important to keep the camera in places where it may seem impossible.

With that in mind, Will and Matt Burrard–Lucas embarked on a project to capture African wildlife in 2010 from a totally different perspective, one that may involve getting very close to dangerous animals and capturing them with a wide-angle lens.

Conventionally, camera traps have been used, which are stationary cameras triggered whenever an animal breaks an invisible infra-red beam.

This method requires a lot of luck, patience and time. Hence they engineered the BeetleCam, a DSLR camera atop a remote control four-wheel drive buggy.

They sourced components from round the world and constructed the robotics and electronics that are needed to build such a vehicle from scratch.

The main challenge of BeetleCam was to move in the tough terrain of the African jungles with lens, camera and flashes. The vehicle used powerful motors and large off-road tires.

The BeetleCam was provided with truly large batteries so that it can operate for long periods without the need for charging.

A split ETTL off-camera flash cord was also constructed that will enable controlling the output of two flashes based on the light conditions.

The camera and the remote controlled buggy were interfaced with the same controller. BeetleCam was camouflaged and the internal gear and camera gear were sealed to secure them from the African environment.

The initial prototype proved to be unstable so an emergency redesign lowered the centre of gravity and just before departure for the project, the redesigned BeetleCam was fit to be released into the wild.

The first trial was done in Katavi and Ruaha national Parks in Africa.

The team were successful in photographing elephants by letting the elephants position in front of the camera and approach it in their own time. They were able to get some incredible pictures of these huge animals.

BeetleCam succeeded in photographing lions, but got a beating and was carried into the bush. Luckily they found an intact memory card. Surprisingly, the BeetleCam had completed its mission successfully and extraordinary pictures of the encounter were found:

Beetlecam footage by Will & Matt Burrard-Lucas - Observing the lions of the Masai Mara.

The African buffalo was surprisingly very co-operative and they got some incredible images.

Later in 2011, they created two new BeetleCams one with an armoured shell and another with advanced features.

The lions were photographed using these advanced BeetleCams and the results were amazing. The device was attacked but survived.

Conclusion

Observing the behaviour of animals in the wild has always been a tough task for researchers as they have to wait for a long time to cature key behaviour.

A recent stealth robot introduced for monitoring wildlife was developed by Scientists Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) that can track wildlife. The robot has four wheels.

The robot is designed based on reduced visual clarity and helps it camouflage in the open environment, hence the robot can observe continuously. Robots can be arranged in the area where the animals will appear.

Sources and Further Reading

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