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Cosmonauts Prepare to Bring the 'Internet of Animals' Online

The Icarus project will track tens of thousands of animals from the International Space Station

3 min read
Flock of birds in flight
Photo: iStock Photo

An ambitious project to keep an eye on thousands of animals and birds from space in a sort of “Internet of Animals” is getting ready to kick off.

In February, German researchers sent three large 200-kilogram antennas to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Soyuz rocket. The antennas joined a computer that had been sent up in October. These pieces will be the ears and brain of ICARUS, short for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, an initiative funded by the Russian and German space agencies to track the movement of the smallest animals—birds, turtles, fish, and even insects—and tap into swarm intelligence.

Icarus researchers will outfit animals with tiny sensor-laden tags that will send their data to the computer aboard the ISS, which will clean it up and beam it down to a smart, central database. “Technically, it’s an Internet of Things via satellite,” says project leader Martin Wikelski at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.

A bird with a sensor tag on it's legThis bird is equipped with a sensor tag for the Icarus project.Photo: MaxCine/MPI for Ornithology Radolfzel

Remote monitoring of animals isn’t new. It has revealed songbird migration patterns, allowed scientists to map ocean floors, and helped wildlife authorities to catch poachers. But Icarus is animal-tracking on steroids. It will allow scientists to scan all corners of the Earth to collect astounding details on tagged animals and their environment. 

The idea is that this large amount of data will reveal global patterns in animal populations, allow scientists to precisely track movements and living conditions, and show why and how animals die—information which could help protect species. 

Animals could then, in turn, aid us. Researchers could use such data to monitor fisheries and other human food sources, unravel the origin and spread of disease like Ebola and avian flu, understand climate change, and predict natural disasters, Wikelski says. “There’s good scientific data showing that animals can anticipate earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis.”

The German team has made tiny tags loaded with a GPS receiver, 3D accelerometer, and temperature, humidity, pressure, altitude, and heart rate sensors. The tags are also equipped with solar panels and rechargeable batteries. The smallest tags weigh 2.5 grams but the team is miniaturizing them further for songbirds and honeybees, Wikelski says.

Today’s geolocation tags burn a lot of power transmitting data via cellular networks or satellite systems. But Icarus tags use a special code-division multiple access (CDMA) coding scheme to communicate with satellites using very little power. Plus, the tags are interactive: scientists can ping them for additional data if needed. (The tags designed for fish will fall off and float to the surface in order to transmit.)

The Icarus tag is activated when it gets a signal from the orbiting computer. Then, it has two seconds to send its data up to the receiving antennas. “Large antennas are important because you can’t beat physics,” Wikelski says. “If you have a small tag on ground, you need a big antenna in space.” The on-board computer can pick up data from 120 tags at a time. It separates, parses, and cleans up the data and sends back the relevant information to Movebank, an open-source, online database the team has developed.

The ICARUS-Antenna being testedResearchers test an Icarus antenna in an anechoic chamber.Photo: MaxCine/MPI for Ornithology Radolfzell

Wikelski and his colleagues have tested the system on the ground by outfitting larger animals with the tags and collecting data via land-based antenna. They were able to predict eruptions of Italy's Mount Etna six hours in advance by observing moving patterns of goats on the volcano’s slopes. Tagging flying foxes in Africa showed how these foxes spread seeds across vast areas. In the future, Wikelski says, the team could track the spread of diseases like avian flu or Ebola, by testing bats for antibodies that show up in their blood after disease exposure, and then figuring out where those animals have been.

The system’s real test will come in August, when the project's operational phase is scheduled to begin. For now, the Russian team is testing the computer system on the ISS. And Russian cosmonauts are training for a five-hour spacewalk in June to install and connect the antennas on the outside of the space station. 

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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