ICARUS flies

Questions for ICARUS initiator Prof. Dr. Martin Wikelski, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Radolfzell, Germany

Prof. Dr. Martin Wikelski

"For us as scientists, new and exciting findings are all that really matters. After the major technical success of ICARUS, we immediately began working with our Russian and international partners to equip animals worldwide with transmitters and deploy the ICARUS tags. Every day counts for us."

Prof. Dr. Martin Wikelski

Animal tracking from space is a vision you have been pursuing for 20 years. As is more or less typical for space projects, you overcame many hurdles over a long marathon to turn ICARUS into reality. Are you satisfied now that you have reached the finish line, or are you still full of energy for your projects?

For us as scientists, new and exciting findings are all that really matters. After the major technical success of ICARUS, we immediately began working with our Russian and international partners to equip animals worldwide with transmitters and deploy the ICARUS tags. Every day counts for us.

Is the system meeting your expectations?

The ICARUS system is working much better than expected, and we are absolutely delighted. At the same time, however, we also see potential for further innovation and improvements.

How has the international community of researchers responded? Is there high demand for animal transmitters for their own projects?

We have been inundated with cooperation requests. Currently, we are not advertising the transmitters and everything is via word of mouth. We have already ordered the next generation of transmitters and we are hoping they will be manufactured quickly despite the global shortage of electronic components.

A system like ICARUS presumably triggers a surge of creative ideas that were previously inconceivable due to a lack of feasibility. How would you rate the quality of the proposals?

Every day we receive emails with new ideas from all corners of the globe. To be honest, we are somewhat overwhelmed by these requests, even though the wealth of ideas is exciting. Given all of these requests and proposals, the significance of the innovation we have brought to life is now very clear to us. As quickly as possible, we would like to implement an open technology approach – i.e. an OEM approach – so that experimenters and scientists worldwide have a way to access this technology. We alone are unable to implement all of the truly unique and innovative proposals we have received.

Who can obtain the animal transmitters? What conditions need to be fulfilled?

Unfortunately, the number of transmitters is still limited since we have only been able to manufacture a few thousand units. We have organized a small scientific committee to select the most interesting topics and then collaborate with the persons who proposed them. In the future, the system should be more open. However, we still want to know what specific animals the transmitters will be used with and what problems the researchers are seeking to solve. The transmitter data is shared with researchers via the “Movebank” global database. The metadata that is available there – i.e. details on the deployment location and purpose – is essential for scientific research.

Is there a limit on the number of tags in use? What are the current system limits?

Since there are about 15 million unique IDs for the tags, we basically don’t have any limit for now. The 15 million tag IDs can also be spaced out over time, multiplying the available quantity by a factor of three. Moreover, we can implement a division into world regions to obtain a further increase by a factor of five. With more than 200 million IDs available, we can go quite far for the time being. However, only about 120 tags can be simultaneously decrypted in a single antenna window. This means that large spatial clusters of tags are not supported.

What projects is the MPIAB planning for itself in the near future?

Our main priority is to integrate terrestrial IoT (e.g. via SigFox) with space IoT (ICARUS). This means that future tags should always seek first to communicate terrestrially and only resort to satellite communications when the terrestrial option is unavailable. This combination provides us with real-time data along with simultaneous global communications. We also urgently need ear tags for mammals, i.e. other antenna types. We are planning scientific projects in areas such as protection of migrating animals and prediction of the global spread of diseases as well as climate change and natural catastrophes.

Are there any surprising insights you have had so far that would have been unattainable without ICARUS?

Well, we had no idea that cuckoos fly from the Russian island of Sakhalin via Japan to Papua New Guinea where they spend the winter. We discovered that Hudsonian godwits fly nonstop from southern Chile to Texas in a span of seven days. We have also learned about intra-African bird migration. In fact, there are new and surprising insights every day.

Typically, wild animals that are very hard to catch are being equipped with transmitters. Tracking and capturing the individual animals is probably quite an adventure in itself. Can you give us an example?

In Bhutan, our former doctoral student – who is now in charge of the national ecological institute – designed special equipment to catch different bird species. In Zambia, we arrange tall nets between huge trees to capture fruit bats in the early morning around 2 am. In South Africa, rhinos are anesthetized from a helicopter to allow treatment of bullet wounds along with attachment of ICARUS ear tags. These examples might sound wild, but that is what we are trained for as biologists.

How do you expect the project to develop over the coming years?

We hope that ICARUS will become the global standard for ground-to-space IoT. The data speaks for itself. Of course, we also need more receivers in orbit, i.e. ICARUS should be deployed on multiple satellites. We need much smaller tags for songbirds, bats and large insects such as migratory locusts. All of this is feasible if we can further develop the ICARUS technology and take advantage of its potential. We want to establish the “internet of animals” – the most intelligent sensor network in the world.

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