Ever wondered how ecologists gather information about the behaviour of animals in the wild? If you guessed long uncomfortable hours sitting motionless for months on end in all sorts of weather, waiting for an animal to wander by so the ecologist can observe it, you’d be right.
This is a bit of a problem for those studying animals, particularly nocturnal animals: since humans can’t see well at night, simply finding nocturnal animals is hard enough, much less observing their small behaviours. And whereas plants just sit in one spot, animals tend to run away at the slightest sight, sound, or smell of a human. Both predators and prey are well-adapted to detecting anything unusual in the environment using any sense available to them.
So what would be very handy is a machine that could do the waiting, and indeed the following and observing, without alarming the animal.
The first thing that the scientists determined was that the robot did not need to be completely invisible or completely silent – fortunate, as these are difficult to achieve unless you have ninja skills. All that is required is that the robot be visually masked, which can involve blending into the background (hiding under, against, or behind foliage; use of shadows; slow movement; etc.), and that the sound it produces from wheels, motor, and ground contact be within acceptable ranges at the location of the animal.
These goals are still much harder than they sound. For instance, in order to achieve acoustic stealth, the robot has to measure its own noise, discern distance to the target animal, evaluate plant growth in the direct path and around the environment which will occlude or muffle its sound, evaluate background noise, and consider the acuity of the target animal’s hearing. All of this makes for a complicated algorithm, which becomes more complex if either or both of the target animal and the robot are moving.
The aim is to create a robot that can observe the behaviours of animals in their natural habitat while keeping them unaware that they’re being watched. If Ashley Tews and his team of robotics specialists at CSIRO succeed, we may know much more about some very reclusive animals, without having to sit in a hole in the ground for months on end.