CAREER: Development of Unmanned Ground Vehicles for Assessing the Health of Secluded Ecosystems (ECHO)
Polar ecosystems currently experience significant impacts due to global changes. Measurable negative effects on polar wildlife have already occurred, such as population decreases of numerous seabird species, including the complete loss of colonies of one of the most emblematic species of the Antarctic, the emperor penguin. These existing impacts on polar species are alarming, especially because many polar species still remain poorly studied due to technical and logistical challenges imposed by the harsh environment and extreme remoteness. Developing technologies and tools for monitoring such wildlife populations is, therefore, a matter of urgency. This project aims to help close major knowledge gaps about the emperor penguin, in particular about their adaptive capability to a changing environment, by the development of next-generation tools to remotely study entire colonies. Specifically, the main goal of this project is to implement and test an autonomous unmanned ground vehicle equipped with Radio-frequency identification (RFID) antennas and wireless mesh communication data-loggers to: 1) identify RFID-tagged emperor penguins during breeding to studying population dynamics without human presence; and 2) receive GPS-TDR datasets from VHF-GPS-TDR data-loggers without human presence to study animal behavior and distribution at sea. The autonomous vehicles navigation through the colony will be aided by an existing remote penguin observatory (SPOT). Properly implemented, this technology can be used to study of the life history of individual penguins, and therefore gather data for behavioral and population dynamic studies. The education objectives of this CAREER project are designed to increase the interest in a STEM education for the next generation of scientists by combining the charisma of the emperor penguin with robotics research. Within this project, a new class on ecosystem robotics will be developed and taught, Robotics boot-camps will allow undergraduate students to remotely participate in Antarctic field trips, and an annual curriculum will be developed that allows K-12 students to follow the life of the emperor penguin during the breeding cycle, powered by real-time data obtained using the unmanned ground vehicle as well as the existing emperor penguin observatory.
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