Ecological sensor webs gain high-tech edge

Environmental monitoring and ubiquitous sensor networks conjure up utopian visions of true global connectivity and Big Brotherly fears of the loss of privacy. However (alas or phew) we’re far from either end of the information-surveillance society spectrum.

But getting us one step closer are scientists at Microsoft Research, Oxford University and Freie Universitat Berlin who have been creating and deploying wireless sensor networks that can monitor the behaviors of individual birds—Manx Shearwaters—as well as the environmental conditions in their burrows. The project, which is based on Skomer Island, a small 2-kilometer-long stretch of land off the coast of Wales, began last summer with 10 burrows, each home to a pair of birds, and will expand, according to the New Scientist, to include 50 pairs of mated birds this coming summer.

The sensors use very lightweight GPS devices and leg rings with radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags to follow the birds. Each burrow also has a stationary sensor node, which can collect data such as temperature and humidity, as well as detect the presence of the birds by sensing the RFID tags on their legs.

Though bird tracking is an ancient sport, the Microsoft-led group’s innovation has been to both increase the resolution of the data, so that scientists can work at more minute scales, and make the software platform much easier to use, to bring sensor networks outside the realm of engineers and more firmly into the world of biologists. This particular project uses ScatterWeb, developed at Freie Universitat Berlin. The software includes an interface that can tweak a sensor’s parameters, for instance to specify that it should collect temperature data if and only if there is movement in a room but no light.

The ecologists placed sensors in or near several of the small tunnels that the birds build their nests in to transmit environmental data back to a central base station, which can then relay it back to the mainland using the mobile phone network. For a really neat visual presentation of the sensor networks, click on this aerial image of the island for a quick but graphically pretty tour.

The purpose of the pilot study last summer was to assess whether the birds’ behaviors were disturbed by the presence of the electronics. They compared the behavior of the monitored birds to the unmonitored birds (an oxymoron?) and saw no adverse effects. Given that I come from the Heisenberg-Principle School of Journalism (the mere act of reporting on a story can change the nature of the story), I’m not entirely sure how you can both monitor and not monitor a population of birds… But I have a feeling that’s not the message I’m supposed to be getting from this news morsel. Moving on. The researchers are hoping to use the results from Skomer Island to eventually branch into other types of high-resolution environmental observation.