Internet of animals ready to take off


ICARUS, the ambitious project for large-scale animal observation based on the International Space Station (ISS) is ready to take off.

The globally renowned research project is being carried out under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (MPIO) at its Radolfzell location at Lake Constance, Germany, in cooperation with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Roscosmos, the space organization of the Russian Federation. Rohde & Schwarz is contributing the wireless technology for the transmitters attached to the animals.

Blackbirds are among the animals the Max Planck Institute will observe with the aid of ICARUS.
Blackbirds are among the animals the Max Planck Institute will observe with the aid of ICARUS.

Where are they flying?

Equipping animals with small transmitters has long been possible thanks to the miniaturization of electronics and sensors. This allows the convenient observation of animal behavior without invading their living space. However, the transmitters used offered very limited range because they employed mobile communications technology or simple analog radio methods. In contrast, the space based ICARUS observation system features a global range.

It seamlessly tracks the movements of birds and other migratory animals with high resolution wherever they go, even across continents. While we know of many species that they migrate and what their destinations are, researchers had so far no access to information about their exact routes, their behavior and the environmental conditions they are facing during their journeys. ICARUS provides elegant, up-to-date answers to these questions.

Mission ICARUS
Mission ICARUS: Satellite technology that benefits biology.

Satellite technology that benefits biology

The hub of the ICARUS system is the International Space Station (ISS). It travels in a virtually circular orbit. In this way, the ISS passes over more than 90 percent of the earth's surface every day. Due to its low orbital height of roughly 400 km, it is well accessible for low-power radio transmitters. This gave the ICARUS project partners the idea of using the ISS as a remote station for the animals to be observed.

However, suitable radio technology was not available ready-made. INRADIOS, a small company specializing in satellite radio and now a Rohde & Schwarz subsidiary, offered to solve this problem. Together with MPIO spin-off ICARUS Global Observation System (I-GOS), SpaceTech and DLR, INRADIOS developed the radio technology, the animal transmitters, the signal processing module for the ISS, and the terrestrial stations that can receive signals in place of the ISS.

In addition to the standard transmitter, versions for sea creatures and large animals will be available.
The animal transmitter (tag) was developed in cooperation with the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and I GOS. In addition to the standard transmitter, special versions for sea creatures and large animals such as elephants will be available.

A tag for every animal

The animal transmitter (tag) manufactured by Rohde & Schwarz approaches the limits of miniaturization. It is so compact (2 cm²) and light (< 5 g) that even small animals can easily carry it. It contains a processor and memory, a GPS receiver, a radio module, a rechargeable battery, a solar cell, and multiple sensors to capture environmental and movement data. This provides information on where the animals are and on their movements, and about environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity and air pressure.

A maritime version of the tag will additionally be waterproof, compression resistant and buoyant, so that it can be fitted on sea creatures. Its attachment will be engineered to release the tag after some time, allowing it to float to the surface and set up a radio connection to the ISS. Additional specialized versions for specific species are in the pipeline.

Step 1
Step 1 - ISS orbit update: The tag is in power-saving sleep mode and waiting for the internal timer to wake it at the expected ISS overhead pass time.
Step 2
Step 2 - ISS orbit update: After waking up, the tag checks at short time intervals whether the ISS download signal is being received.
Step 3
Step 3 - ISS orbit update: When the signal is received, the tag extracts the current ephemeris data and uses it together with its own GPS position to calculate the time of the next transmission slot. Then it returns to sleep mode if no data logging is pending.

Stork to ISS: please respond

The ISS acts like a data sink that receives data from tagged animals as it passes over them. Data transmission to the ISS takes place in narrow timeslots. Animals are within radio range for only 15 seconds per day. These timeslots must be anticipated precisely. Using the ISS ephemeris data sent to it at regular intervals, the tag calculates the timeslots and prepares itself for transmission and reception at the given moments. It spends most of its time in low-power sleep mode and is only awakened by a timer when data is to be received or radio contact established according to the program.

Step 1
Step 1 - Transmission of sensor data: When the timeslot for a possible transmission to the ISS approaches, the tag awakens from sleep mode. Data upload, which takes approx. 3 s, is started randomly within the short transmission slot of approx. 15 s so that adjacent tags will not send simultaneously.
Step 2
Step 2 - Transmission of sensor data: After data upload, the tag briefly enters receive mode in case there are any subsequent control commands for the tag. The ISS only sends these to a tag when it knows from a recently received upload that the tag is within range.
Step 3
Step 3 - Transmission of sensor data: Before the tag goes back to sleep mode, it calculates the next contact time. The timer is one of the key components of the tag. It wakes the tag only when there is something to be done, which means either logging sensor data or getting ready for a transmission.

The data to be collected and transmitted and the intervals for collection and transmission can be individually defined for each tag. Like with every object in the internet of things, ICARUS makes it possible to individually address each animal in the internet of animals. To simplify things and because, as a rule, large animal communities need to be tagged, tags can be organized in groups and addressed collectively.

The ISS onboard computer accumulates the received data and sends bundled sets of data to the ICARUS main ground station operated by Roscosmos. The ground station saves the data and forwards it to the operations control center in Germany, where it is uploaded to the central database at www.movebank.org.

Prof. Dr. Martin Wikelski, Head of the ICARUS project, investigates the movements of fruit bats.
Prof. Dr. Martin Wikelski, Head of the ICARUS project, investigates the movements of fruit bats.
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High expectations, strong demand

The unique research opportunities ICARUS opens up for biologists have led scientists all over the world to submit more than 300 inquiries to the MPIO. MPIO will give approved applicants the necessary number of tags and exclusive use of the collected data for a period of three years, after which the data will be generally accessible. MPIO of course has a few projects of its own. For example, the current research project on blackbirds will be elevated to a new level with ICARUS. Fruit bats in Africa, which have been a focus of interest for some time because they distribute seeds and serve as "sniffer dogs" for sources of Ebola infection, can be tracked precisely thanks to ICARUS. Ignoring the "O" in its name, MPIO is extending its research even further beyond the world of birds and launching a third project to equip alpine mountain goats with tags. ICARUS gives wings to the imagination of biologists.

Regular operation planned for the fourth quarter

Regular operation planned for the fourth quarter

Since the ISS remote station was not available at first, the tags were tested together with ground radios also manufactured by Rohde & Schwarz. This operating mode is planned as an alternative. It has the advantage that significantly higher data rates can be achieved and data transmission takes place much more often than with the ISS passing over the tags. Scientists can conveniently carry out small-scale observations such as in the breeding area of a bird colony. A system test, including testing of the ISS on-board system, will be launched in July. The first attempt to switch on the system on July 10 failed due to cooling problems with the on-board computer, which should be resolved soon. If everything goes well, regular scientific operation will start by the end of the year.

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