ANU researchers Debbie Saunders and Adrian Manning with the tracking drone

Drone developed to track rare radio-tagged wildlife

The world's first drone designed to locate radio-tagged wildlife could help scientists gain unprecedented insight into the world's most hard-to-spot animals.

Designed by researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) and The University of Sydney, the device consists of an off-the-shelf unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) carrying a custom-built miniature receiver and antenna.

The sensor suite provides real-time information on radio-tracked wildlife, mapped live on a laptop, and the team has successfully detected tiny radio transmitters weighing as little as one gram when tracking small marsupials called bettongs at the Mulligan's Flat woodland sanctuary in Canberra.

"The small aerial robot will allow researchers to more rapidly and accurately find tagged wildlife, gain insights into movements of some of the world's smallest and least-known species and access areas that are otherwise inaccessible," said lead researcher Dr Debbie Saunders from ANU's Fenner School of Environment and Society.

"We have done more than 150 test flights and have demonstrated how the drones can find and map the locations of animals with radio tags."

ANU associate professor Adrian Manning, also from the Fenner School, helped the team by attaching VHF and GPS collars to bettongs at Mulligan's Flat.

"Radio tracking of collars manually is very time consuming," he said. "Early indications are that the drones could save a huge amount of time. If you have two operators working and they can put the drone up in two bursts of 20 minutes, they can do what would take half a day or more to do using ground methods."

Saunders, a wildlife ecologist, came up with the idea eight years ago to track small dynamic migratory birds, but it was only after teaming up with Dr Robert Fitch from the University of Sydney's Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) two-and-a-half years ago that the vision became a reality.

"Lots of people are trying to do this. It is not an easy process, but we believe we've come up with a solution," said ACFR researcher Oliver Cliff. "We've had interest in our system from all around the world. We are still doing some fine tuning, but we've achieved more than has ever been done before, which is exciting."

Details of the new research tool were presented at the conference 'Robotics: Science and Systems'.

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