It’s a question that has plagued biologists and wildlife researchers for decades – how do you get close enough to observe an animal’s behavior without being noticed? Many animals are shy in the wild, and the presence of humans can change their behavior enough to corrupt any data that might be obtained in close quarters.
Some researchers may have finally found an answer – robotic animals. More accurately, camera probes disguised as the animals they’re intended to observe. These robots might look like they’d be at home on the shelves of a toy store – but they’re actually sensitive instruments designed to collect data and footage of animals in their natural habitats.
Dr. Yvon Le Maho and his team of researchers from the University of Strasbourg initially came up with the idea for these animal-shaped robots after realizing that their efforts to study penguins were being hindered by the fact that Le Maho and his team looked nothing like penguins. It’s a common problem — humans, even well-intentioned scientists, are perceived as a threat by many of the species they study.
Le Maho’s first prototype was a bit awkward – essentially, a stuffed toy penguin on a remote-controlled set of ice-ready wheels. While it took a few tries to get it right, eventually most of the penguins accepted the rolling camera as one of their own, and the team of researchers was able to get a good look at what the penguins would act like in the wild, under no supervision.
Some of the adult emperor penguins were seen pecking the camera probe, but it managed to huddle with a group of chicks without being kicked out. Some members of the troop even attempted singing songs to the probe, as if they were trying to communicate with it. Meanwhile, the team of researchers stayed a full 200 meters away from the scene, an effective distance to ensure that they would not be seen or heard by the penguins.
Observing some penguins attempting to communicate with the rover, Le Maho realized that it was likely these penguins saw the rover as a potential mate, and were making calls in order to gauge the robot’s suitability as a mate. Seeing this, the team of researchers told reporters that next time they would program the bot to make sounds in response.
Building these animal probes is not only a matter of observing animals’ most natural behavior. Some animals are difficult to study because they see a team of researchers as less of a threat, and more of a delicious meal. In these cases, these sturdy robots come in handy because they’re harder to hurt than a squishy human researcher. Biology teams can simply send in a robot to spend some time around predatory species like bears or lions in the wild. In turn, they can observe behaviours that might never occur in captivity.
The scientists behind the robotic penguin chick hope that their probe will eventually be used in conjunction with tagging practices. With a few adjustments, this probe could be used to read radio tags. This application could be even more useful in the case of animals that are difficult enough to tag in the first place – to help researchers take some of the physical strain and effort out of reading the data.
Scientific research isn’t the only potential application for these animal robots. Wildlife filmmaker John Downer has also been using these robots to get up-close and personal with animals. The shots that can help scientists view the lives of animals up close are also, as it turns out, fascinating to viewers who tune in to Downer’s nature programs on the BBC.
For one show, Downer’s production team built a small robotic probe that looked like a snowball to film polar bears. While a roving snowball didn’t exactly go unnoticed by the bears, it allowed the team to film them up close without putting any of the crew in harm’s way. The film that Downer’s “snowball” captured is yet another example of how well the robots work with more dangerous animals – the camera appears to get damaged in the clip, but it’s much easier to replace than a crew member.
The same team also created a series of realistic robotic fish to observe sea life such as dolphins and sea turtles. Biologists already use robotic probes to observe sea turtles – perhaps someday these will be replaced with more fish-looking robots that will allow scientists to view the turtles completely undisturbed.
Just as scientists who are already sending out robotic probes to study sea life could benefit from robots that look more like animals, there are many applications for robots that can be easily disguised as wildlife. Admittedly, not all of these applications are inherently peaceful. Observational and armed drones, for example, could easily be disguised as birds and even insects in order to get closer to targets without being noticed. Once these robots become commonplace, though, they may even break into the toy market.
Researchers at the National University of Singapore have also been developing a robot that takes design inspiration from the bodies of sea turtles. When finished, the hope is that this robot will swim through the ocean monitoring water quality and helping conservationists to ensure that animals’ habitats are protected.