Internet of animals goes into operation


ICARUS, the ambitious project for large-scale animal observation based on the International Space Station (ISS), has completed its test phase with flying colors, allowing initial projects to begin.

The globally renowned research project is being carried out under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior (MPIAB) at its Radolfzell location on 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 radio 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, passing 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 off the shelf. INRADIOS, a small company specializing in satellite radio and now a Rohde & Schwarz subsidiary, offered to solve this problem. Together with the MPIAB spin-off ICARUS Global Observation System (I-GOS), SpaceTech and the 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 about where the animals are, their movements, their body temperature and the environmental conditions such as 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 link to the ISS.

ISS orbit update
Step 1: 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: After waking up, the tag checks at short time intervals whether the ISS download signal is being received. Step 3: 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.
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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.

Transmission of sensor data
Step 1: When the time slot for a possible transmission to the ISS nears, the tag awakens from sleep mode. The upload, which takes approx. 3 s, is started randomly within the short approx. 15 s open transmission slot so that not all adjacent tags are sent simultaneously. Step 2: After the 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: Before the tag goes back into 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.
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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 the animal communities that need to be tagged are generally large, tags can be organized in groups and addressed collectively.

The ISS on-board computer accumulates the received data and sends bundled sets of data to the ICARUS ground station operated by Roscosmos. The ground station forwards the data to the operations control center in Germany, where it is uploaded to the central database at www.movebank.org, which is accessible worldwide via the internet.

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 already led scientists all over the world to submit hundreds of inquiries to the MPIAB. The MPIAB 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. The MPIAB of course has a few projects up its own sleeve. 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. On Sicily, investigations are underway as to whether animals actually have a sixth sense for looming natural catastrophes and can sense volcanic eruptions (Mount Etna) beforehand. Sensors will be placed on mountain goats for this project. ICARUS gives wings to the imagination of biologists.

Regular operation planned for the fourth quarter

Research activities have begun

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.

The first system test that was scheduled with the ISS in July 2019 failed due to cooling problems in the on-board computer. The project was delayed by a few months due to the need to obtain spare parts. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic led to further delays. Nevertheless, it was still possible to carry out extensive testing in 2020 – and the system passed with flying colors. Moreover, the performance of the radio equipment significantly exceeded expectations. The first cross-continental project for observing the migratory behavior of blackbirds and thrushes has now been underway since September 2020. While the system is picking up speed, INRADIOS is continuing its work on development of the radio tags together with the MPIAB. The objective is to achieve even greater miniaturization while simultaneously boosting the battery life. One day the tags could even be small enough to attach them to insects.

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