Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Uses Ground Drone to Track Penguins

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) is the largest independent oceanographic research enterprise in the United States. With its headquarters in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the research institute boasts around 1,000 staff and students and some of the most advanced research technology available to uphold its missions. WHOI has become particularly known for research programs utilizing drones.

In 2017, WHOI began developing the framework for a 30 year research program that would rely heavily on data gathered by an unmanned vehicle. MARE (Monitor the health of the Antarctic maRine ecosystems using the Emperor penguin as a sentinel) recently began its initial trial using a ground drone called ECHO. For the mission, WHOI needed a drone that could immerse itself within a penguin colony while standing up to the harsh conditions of Atka Bay in Antarctica.

WHOI purchased a Husky UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) from Clear Path Robotics based out of Ontario, Canada. As explained on Clear Path’s website, “Husky is a medium sized robotic development platform. Its large payload capacity and power systems accommodate an extensive variety of payloads, customized to meet research needs. Stereo cameras, LIDAR, GPS, IMUs, manipulators and more can be added to the UGV by our integration experts. The Husky’s rugged construction and high-torque drivetrain can take your research where no other robot can go.” WHOI made several modifications to the drone and named it ECHO.

Prior to WHOI’s modifications, ECHO weighed 110lbs. The drone measures 39 x 26.4 x 14.6inches, making it roughly as tall as an adult emperor penguin. ECHO has a max speed of 2.2mph, making it ideal to carefully navigate the precarious icy terrain of Atka Bay without spooking the penguins. ECHO’s battery provides it with around 3 hours of operation before it autonomously returns to a charging station. ECHO has a 360° camera for gathering visual documentation of a colony of 20,000 or more penguins. But, to be able to gather detailed information, WHOI needed ECHO to spot and scan specific birds.

WHOI has been tagging about 300 emperor penguin chicks a year with RFID chips. The chips are implanted in the chicks while hidden behind screens so as not to alert the colony as to what the scientists are doing. The team wants to have as little human influence on the colony as possible so as not to skew data results, which is why ECHO is so important. “The really cool thing is if I as a human would try to get as close as ECHO, they would be running away,” said Daniel Zitterbart, lead MARE researcher. “We don’t want to scare the animals. Our general aim is to do more science with less impact. And humans have a much bigger impact on the animals than the robot actually has.”

ECHO is equipped with sensors that can scan and transmit data from the RFID chip in a penguin. The chip provides GPS information to help ECHO locate specific birds. The chip also provides ECHO with biometric data such as health characteristics and foraging habits. As apex predators of Atka Bay, emperor penguins can uniquely provide researchers with an understanding of the total ecosystem of the Antarctic region. The data collected by the drone will give insight into ecosystem changes such as food availability and stability of the ice sheet. With this knowledge, scientists can further develop necessary conservation methods.

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