Radio tags have made things easier for environmental scientists tracking animal movements, but they still involve spending a lot of time and money traipsing over land by foot in search of a signal. This is particularly pertinent for Australian National University's (ANU) Debbie Saunders, who has spent years trying to track small, evasive birds. But work is set to become easier for Saunders and her team, who have developed the first radio-tracking drone that locates radio-tagged wildlife in a fraction of the time of previous methods.

"The original idea was to track small migratory birds," Saunders explains to Gizmag. "These birds don't go back to the same place because Australia's climate is variable, so they move every year. It was previously impossible to track them."

This led Saunders to envision a more efficient method of seeking out animals that inhabit difficult to access terrain. After around two-and-a-half years of building and testing, her team has developed a modified drone equipped with a custom-made receiver and antenna that provides real-time information on the whereabouts of radio-tagged wildlife.

"How it works is, we don't want to fly straight toward the animal because you will scare it, so we launch it manually and fly up to 30 to 50 meters (98 to 164 ft), above the canopy," says Saunders, a wildlife ecologist. "Then when it picks up the signal, it shows you where on Google Maps and then we know it is right there."

Because many of the small migratory birds Saunders and her team are tracking, such as the endangered swift parrot, are rare species, they wanted to test the system on a more common ground animal first. So they put it to work tracking radio-tagged bettongs, a small kind of kangaroo, at Canberra's Mulligan's Flat sanctuary. They found it could successfully pick up miniature radio transmitters that weigh as little as one gram (0.4 oz).

"Early indications are that the drones could save a huge amount of time," says ANU Associate Professor Adrian Manning. "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."

The team has conducted more than 150 test flights and say the system is attracting international interest, as it could be enlisted in efforts to learn about the world's more reclusive species.

"There's species out there that we don't know much about because they live in difficult to reach environments," says Saunders. "This is where it could come into its own, because it could track basically anything you can put a radio tag on."

Wildlife conservation has proven one of the more promising applications for drone technology, with researchers putting the flying robots to use in sniffing out chimpanzee nests, protecting endangered species, and studying killer whale behavior, just to name a few examples.

A paper detailing the ANU team's research was presented at Robotics: Science and Systems and be found here (PDF).

You can hear from Saunders and see the drones in action in the video below.

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