There's an old saying that goes, "If you want to know the vulture, be like one of his eggs." OK, that's not even remotely an old saying, but it is at least part of the thinking of a new initiative that will see a batch of artificial electronic eggs called "EggDuinos" getting plopped in the nests of vultures in order to study their habitats.
The project has been initiated by the International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) and is part of its effort to stem the decline of three critically-endangered vulture species in southeast Asia, where their numbers are dwindling due to a veterinary drug called Diclofenac that has killed millions of them. The three species the group is targeting are the Oriental White-backed Vulture, the Long-billed Vulture and the Slender Billed Vulture.
Cape Griffon Vultures, like this chick, are also endangered and could be helped by the EggDuino research
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The two organizations arrived at an "EggDuino," a realistic-looking egg that's milled from laser-cut wood placed inside an artificial eggshell. Inside the egg is a Bluetooth module, humidity sensor, barometer, three-axis gyroscope and accelerometer, and a sensor that measures the strength of magnetic fields. There are also 14 temperature sensors dotting the inside of the shell.
Each artificial egg needs to obtain and transmit data over the course of 70 days, which is the amount of time it takes a baby vulture to hatch. So, to keep the energy requirements of the egg to a minimum, Microduino decided to store the data collection module outside the egg. That module contains its own weather station, a Wi-Fi-enabled Raspberry Pi and a more powerful Mircoduino computer stack. The egg transmits to this module using low-energy Bluetooth and the module stores the data until it connects to the internet and uploads to a dedicated cloud server also created by Microduino.
Once the researchers can gain a better understanding of the conditions under which the vultures breed, they'll be able to replicate those conditions in artificial environments that don't require a vulture mother. In this way, they hope to restore the birds to a sustainable population. Initially, the EggDuinos will be tested out in a laboratory setting and will then be field tested in Africa or India in the coming months.
In this video, you can see a vulture mother returning to a nest where an EggDuino has been placed. "As you can see she is very happy with it and turns it just as she would with a real egg," says Bill Feng, CEO of Mircroduino.
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