Twitchers go high tech

Ornithologists tired of sitting still for hours in wet and windy conditions can now keep an eye on their feathered friends from the comfort of their own home, thanks to a technology developed by chip maker Intel Corp.

The company has been working closely with scientists at Berkeley University in California and biologists from Atlantic College in Maine to develop miniaturised sensors, known as motes, which can be fitted into birds' natural habitats to monitor their movements, eating and breading habits.

Up until now, the biologists have been manually monitoring Petrel seabirds on at the remote Great Duck Island off the coast of Maine using a cumbersome camera and an old fashioned pad and pen. This meant costly trips to and from the island, as well as the risk of damaging the birds' habitat.

Now they can upgrade to the mote devices. These are slightly bigger than the two AA batteries that power them and communicate information via infrared to a central notebook computer located in the island's lighthouse. This then sends the data back via satellite for analysis at the universities.

"There is nothing [else] like this sensor network available for conservation biologists, nothing that can provide good quality data in such dense numbers," said John Anderson associate dean and conservation biologist at Maine's Atlantic college.

"What's really exciting about this is that we can get a feel for what happens on the island when humans aren't there. This kind of sensor network will have a profound effect on how we view this field of ecology," he added.

Each mote contains sensors which can communicate with each other at 40KBps (kilobytes per second) via radio signals.

Costs and risk of causing ecological damage were minimised by linking the relay sensor (which uses the most power) to a solar panel, leaving the motes to run on the AA batteries for over six months and keeping visits to the island to a minimum.

The motes are self-organising, using their moving sensors to search for signals from neighbouring networks and then adapt to changes in position.

All data collected can be viewed at www.greatduckisland.net.

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Wendy Brewer

PC World
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