Robots Penguins Can Spy: Droids disguised as penguins can mingle with their flesh-and-blood counterparts without scaring the shy birds, a discovery that shows how robotic scientists can help them learn secrets about wildlife. can help by studying them in their natural habitat without disturbing them.
Yvonne Le Mahou, an ecologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, has studied penguins for 40 years. You may have seen some of this work in March of the Penguins. In 2011, Lee Maho and his colleagues revealed that tagging king penguins with bands around their flippers, a common method of studying and tracking them, was detrimental—it reduced their survival. And the number of their offspring was affected, possibly by reducing their speed in the water. The researchers then tried a different tracking tech: tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags implanted under the skin that wouldn’t slow down the penguins. The problem here was that a radio antenna must be within two feet of the penguin to read such tags.
“You have to be close to the birds to read the tags, and we didn’t know exactly how humans roaming the penguin colony would disturb the birds,” says Lee Maho.
This led Li Maho and his colleagues to try using remote-controlled vehicles, or rovers, to enter penguin colonies to read the tags. From 2008 to 2012, scientists used the rover to visit penguin colonies on two islands near Antarctica, the king penguin on Passion Island and the emperor penguin on Adelieland. Le Maho says the island is part of an archipelago known as the French Galapagos, “which is home to 25 million seabirds – you have two-thirds of the world’s king penguin population”. Adelaide, meanwhile, has the strongest winds seen so close to sea level, reaching 200 miles per hour.
The penguin bots caused King Penguin far less trouble than the appearance of the human scientists. The birds saw a jump in heart rate, but as large as they experience whenever they defend their territory from neighboring penguins. They never back down from the animatronic penguins.
Emperor penguins proved to be shyer, but when Rover was disguised as a penguin chick, all the birds let Rover get close enough to identify them, and both the adult and chick emperor penguins were able to vocally communicate with him. Heard trying to. Rovers can also go without disturbing the tails of southern elephant seals (they usually react violently when humans try).
“These findings open new doors for investigating wild animals using robots, answering new questions with less hassle,” says Lee Maho.