Bridging the Gaps: DIY Biologging

Dr Lucy Hawkes explains how animal tracking and open source technology collided in a Bridging the Gaps workshop…

In 1822 a white stork was shot by hunters in a small coastal village in the north of Germany.

But this was no ordinary stork – lodged in its neck was an 80cm central African spear, which had been carried from its wintering grounds. This impressive feat of survival marked a turning point in our understanding of animal migration.

In 1822 our understanding of the natural world was still fairly limited, Charles Darwin was not to leave for his seminal voyage on the HMS Beagle for another nine years.

Bird migration remained a particular mystery, although there were plenty of theories as to where birds disappeared in the winter. For example, an essay written in 1703 stated that many birds flew to the moon for the winter, while others reported that some species spent the winter underwater or even turned into other creatures.

However, that one white stork proved for the first time that birds simply travelled to different places during winter, in this case, probably to Sudan, where it had been speared. In fact, we now know that birds hold the record for the fastest, highest and furthest migrations on earth and some species travel around the entire globe during the course of a year.

It was not for another 120 years that serious investigation into animal movements began to happen. Perhaps inspired by carrier pigeons, deployed with breast-mounted cameras during the war to photograph behind enemy lines, a Swedish scientist called Per Scholander attached a home made depth gauge to a harpooned whale to try to find out quite how deep it could dive.

Sometime later, another researcher from California, Gerry Kooyman, made another time-depth recorder and attached it to a friendly Weddell seal in Antarctica.

But it wasn’t until the 80s that the first animal’s movements (rather than diving habits) were followed. Back then, the technology was clunky and primitive. Researchers today can make use of a huge range of innovative technology, crafted and improved through the revolution in mobile phone technology and laptop computers.

A pulse oximetry logger built using Microsoft Gadgeteer technology. This device uses a clip-on finger stall (grey plastic object attached to blue wire) to measure the amount of oxygen circulating in the wearers blood, by shining light through your finger and measuring reflectance. The finger stall sends an analogue signal, which is collected and analysed by the Gadgeteer mainboard (black square, middle top of picture). The Gadgeteer then displays the data on an LCD screen (top left of picture). The device is powered by four AA batteries (top right of picture), so can be taken anywhere. (L Hawkes and M Witt).

Here at the College of Life and Environmental Sciences I interact with such technology daily and have been lucky enough to be the first to describe the migrations and behaviour of several populations of animals.

However, I for one did not understand the electronics behind much of the technology I used, and didn’t know how I could adapt it to fit my specific research questions. Sometimes research questions can be so specific that there are no technological solutions that can be purchased off the shelf to answer them.

I had become detached from the initial invention and creativity that started my field of research – it was time to do something about it.

Around the same time, some bright souls started thinking about the lack of people with computer programming skills entering the job market.

They surmised that computer programming needed more exposure, and decided to invent kits to get children into programming. This led to the invention of the Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Beagle Bone and Gadgeteer, to name a few tiny computers that can be programmed to carry out tasks.

This has turned out to be such a good idea, and the need for such technology and skill base so critical, that schools in the UK are adopting a new Computer Technology curriculum from this month (September 2013).

Children as young as five will now begin to learn to programme using cheap open source technology, such as the Raspberry Pi.

We brought these two worlds, animal tracking and open source technology, together in a Bridging the Gaps funded workshop, DIY Biologging.

The workshop brought together staff from the College of Life and Environmental Sciences (the stock Biologists) plus engineers, medical researchers, designers and even a 3D printing and digital fabrication lab based in Falmouth University College of Arts.

A logger to measure and display how hot you are. This device is built from an Arduino (the blue-green electronics board to the left of the picture) and a breadboard (the white plastic rectangle with lots of holes). The device hosts a temperature sensor (the tiny black component at the far side of the breadboard) and three red LEDs. The subject holds onto the temperature sensor and waits to see how many LEDs they can light up. The hotter they are, the more they can light!

We were also lucky to have an electronics specialist from Microsoft’s team that made their version of this technology, The Gadgeteer.

For the workshop, we started small – making devices to GPS track large objects, or to monitor heart rate and blood oxygenation. We progressed to making a device to monitor conditions inside a honey bee nest and made a start on making a bicycle that will log carbon dioxide levels as it travels around.

We were excited, we were frustrated and we thought we had broken at least one computer as we learnt the tips and tricks to communicate effectively with the technologies we had (the computer was fine in the end).

What precipitated from the workshop was a real appetite between the participants to start to integrate these technologies in our day-to-day research, and to use them to communicate more effectively with each other too.

We are hoping to start a Tremough Geek Club to build and programme in our evenings and weekends. We are beginning new partnerships between the participants, colleges and institutions that attended the workshop, and discussions for future work and grants is already underway.

Bridging the Gaps made it possible for us to bring this exciting field to Tremough and we hope to get our first Tremough-made devices out into the field soon.

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