• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Remote Sensing

Air Date: Week of

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Scientists are tracking one of Maine’s most elusive seabirds with a remote sensing system that instantaneously sends data to computers across the country. As Molly Bentley reports, this new technology allows for non-intrusive monitoring of sensitive habitat.


CURWOOD: Remote sensing conjures up images of satellites snapping pictures from space. But a new sensor network being used by biologists in Maine has a decidedly earthbound feel. Tiny electronic devices can monitor the activities of creatures with the results relayed to scientists miles away. In this case, researchers are getting valuable data from the nesting grounds of the storm petrel, and hopefully these seabirds never notice. Molly Bentley reports from Great Duck Island off the coast of Maine.


BENTLEY: It's a cool, sunny day and Alan Mainwaring keeps his eye on the ground. He's winding his way among the black spruce trees on the 250-acre Great Duck Island. Mainwaring is a biologist from the Intel Research Laboratory in Berkeley, California, and he's searching for mounds of excavated dirt, the telltale sign of a bird's nest or borough underground.

MAINWARING: There's actually one over here that looks like a pretty good candidate. So what I'm going to do is have a look inside to see if, by chance, there is an animal in it.

BENTLEY: Mainwaring lies on his stomach, his cheek against moss, and reaches into the earth up to his elbow. When he determines that the nest is bird-free, he prepares to deposit a biological sensor in the borough wall.

MAINWARING: This small device I have in my hand is called a mote, otherwise known as a wireless sensor. It has a light sensor, several different types of temperature sensors, and an infrared sensor that's capable of detecting the body heat given off from a bird when it's in its nest. And it has a barometric pressure sensor.

Mote next to a quarter. (Photo: Intel)   

BENTLEY: It's the sort of information that a biologist collects in the field, except that a sensor can go where a biologist can't, like into a small hole in the ground. And the sensor monitors continuously. There are 40 or so sensors set up in this forest, each collecting data on a seabird's nest, which is then relayed to the scientist almost instantly.

MAINWARING: We found that even the very, very low-power radios that these devices have are capable of transmitting from inside these burrows and underground, and it's also capable of relaying its readings in almost real time to computers on the Internet. And this is quite revolutionary, because it means the observer can be, really, arbitrarily far away from the environment being monitored.

BENTLEY: The storm petrel is a perfect test case for this technology. Biologists know very little about them. Although they're one of the most common seabirds, petrels are rarely seen over land. When they do return to the island, it's at night when they zip into their burrows underground.

A young petrel. (Photo: John Anderson / College of the Atlantic) An adult petrel. (Photo: John Anderson / College of the Atlantic)

MAINWARING: We should probably come back tonight and see if we can spot any of the birds that are using the burrows in this area.

BENTLEY: It's midnight and Mainwaring is back in the forest, this time with a flashlight and a colleague, Andrew Peterson, who works with Maine's College of the Atlantic. Peterson says sensor networks collect the information that biologists need to protect habitats while minimizing disturbance to them by human hand or foot. Once the sensors are installed, people can leave the island and the birds in peace. Meanwhile, the sensors help answer basic questions about the birds.

MAINWARING: What percentage of time the birds spend in their burrows, how many birds are in the burrows at a given time, and exactly what times of day and night they come and go.

PETERSON: If you have a large island, perhaps only one particular portion of it is really relevant for the reproduction of a particular species. And this sort of information over time, we hope, allows conservationists to be more specific in their work.


MAINWARING: We've just had four or five petrels fly over us. There went one right there. There goes another. There goes a third.

BENTLEY: They're fast.

MAINWARING: Yep. And they're black birds but they do shine a bit in this full moon. They're graceful flyers, eh?

BENTLEY: As the birds fly into the burrows, the sensors pick up the information, forward it to a laptop, which then relays it cross-country to Berkeley, California.

SZEWCZYK: This column is the light sensor.

BENTLEY: At the Intel lab in Berkeley, Robert Szewczyk and Alec Woo go over the data.

WOO: This should go from 4,000 to zero.

BENTLEY: They haven't interpreted it yet; that will come later. In future projects, this kind of biological monitor could be outfitted with any sort of sensor, such as a GPS receiver, or a soil sensor to monitor groundwater. According to Mainwaring, this creates the potential for all kinds of environmental monitoring, from birds to whales to farmer's crops.

MAINWARING: We could get an enormous amount of information about the overall health of this planet. You're looking at billions of things becoming networked, billions of computers capable of exchanging information and interacting. And it has the potential to be just as revolutionary, if not more so, than what happened when a modest number of computers formed the primordial Internet.

BENTLEY: The network is already expanding. There are plans to install sensors in an Oregon vineyard to help with the early detection of mold. Scientists are also hopeful that sensors in trees in the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California will help them map the wind conditions that lead to forest fires. For Living on Earth, I'm Molly Bentley.



Great Duck Island

Intel Research Laboratories


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth