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Advanced Satellite Tracking System Will Contribute to Natural Resources Conservation and Management


William S. Seegar, U.S. Army Edgewood Engineering Center, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD 21010-5423 USA, Mark R. Fuller, U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, Raptor Research Center, Snake River Field Station, Boise State University, 970 Luck Avenue, Boise, ID 83706 USA, Janis K. D. Seegar, U.S. Army Environmental Quality Directorate, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD 21010-5423 USA, and M. Blake Henke, SciTech Services Inc., Abingdon, MD 21009 USA

Advanced biotelemetry capabilities that incorporate the latest innovations in microelectronics, geographic information systems (GIS), and computer modeling offer great promise in helping to define and characterize human impacts on important species and ecological communities and to identify strategies to ensure their sustain ability in the face of expanding human enterprise. A miniature, satellite-based tracking system light enough to be carried on the backs of birds was first developed in the mid-1980s. The system ­ still widely used ­ employs the Argos-Tyros satellite system, along with tiny platform transmitter terminals (PTTs) attached to the target organisms. This system gains location fixes via Doppler shift principles and is capable of tracking mobile organisms anywhere on the face of the Earth to within + 2 km. Satellite transmitters (i.e., PTTs) weighing less than 20 grams ­ which includes 3.5 grams of electronics, an 8 gram battery, and the remainder in the container ­ are now commercially available from Microwave Telemetry, Inc.. From the beginning, use of radio tagging always has been based on careful consideration of the effects of the transmitters on birds' behavior and flight. Since the early 1990s, over 500 PTTs have been applied to more than 20 avian species on a global scale.

A new and more capable generation satellite tracking system containing a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and a suite of advanced sensors is now being tested ­ these advanced sensors may include a digital acoustic sensor and a tiny black & white camera, along with other sensors to provide meteorological and animal physiological data. This new satellite tracking system will allow researchers to track target organisms with greater accuracy, as well as obtain near real-time animal behavior and habitat information.

The data from these new onboard sensors, combined with time and location tags, can provide previously unattainable information relevant to natural resource impact assessment and management. The GPS receiver will provide more frequent and more accurate (to within 20 m) animal locations than currently feasible. GPS readings can be collected according to a pre-programmed schedule and saved to the onboard processor for later transmission to the satellite system. The acoustic sensor is designed to recognize animal vocalizations, thus remotely allowing ­ for the first time ­ thorough evaluation of animal behaviors and specific activities. By locating exact animal behaviors and linking them to specific habitats within the animal's natural range, valuable information can be collected on species interrelationships and the microhabitat components of their range. The data provided by the black and white camera can provide similarly ground breaking information, such as clutch or brood size, reproductive success, and preferred microhabitats and nesting locations. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can then relate animal movements and activities to jurisdictional boundaries, habitats, ecological community structures, and land-use activities with far greater accuracy than currently possible. Tagged animals may act as sentinels, or indicators, in their populations and in their ecosystems. These sentinels, moving in herds or flocks, can reflect the activities of many animals and can dramatically enhance sampling methods. Such information may lead to the development of a monitoring system to forecast bird flight vectors and help mitigate bird strikes by military and commercial aircraft. Meteorologists and climatologists can also benefit from this new technology. Time-coded location and sensor information received from the tagged animals can contribute significantly to meteorological and climatological studies. Relevant information can be obtained aloft from the backs of birds, including some avian species that migrate over currently unmonitored expanses on land and at sea.

Clearly, this capability will have applications outside the military, as well. The ability to characterize specific migration routes, breeding areas, and wintering locations for any species (avian, terrestrial, aquatic, or marine) large enough to carry a satellite transmitter offers tremendous potential toward defining and achieving sustainable development. This new capability, however, is only a tool. The transmitters and their utility for resource management continue to be defined and advanced, and the potential applications are practically limitless. If we hope to sustain expanding human populations and simultaneously conserve biodiversity, we must continue to pursue these types of advanced technologies and support their full application throughout the world. A newly formed non-profit organization called EARTHSPAN is dedicated to this mission.

Funding for this work was provided by the Department of Defense's Legacy Resource Management Program and Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP).


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