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Partners in the Sky

The Plan

SCBI scientists identified specifications for their ideal tracking system and presented them to the Partners in the Sky consortium—Airbus, Intel, Iridium Communications, Inc, Joubeh, Lockheed Martin, Michael Goldfarb Associates, Raytheon, Rockwell Collins, and United Airlines. Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory joined the effort thanks to a donation from the Rick Bowe and Karen Nemeth Charitable Fund.

Together with the Partners and Penn State’s Applied Research Lab, SCBI scientists charted a course of action that includes four key parts:

1. Satellite Technology

Industry and scientists are working together to increase data transmission and make tracking devices more affordable and reliable, ideally lasting the lifetime of an animal. Increasing the use of low-orbit satellite networks will help track animals anywhere in the world at any time.

2. The One-Gram Challenge

Miniaturizing tracking devices to 1 gram will pinpoint precise movement of birds and other small migratory animals, like amphibians, remotely. Ninety percent of animals are too small to be tracked with existing trackin technology because devices are too large and heavy. Tracking devices should not weigh more than 5 percent of an animal's total body weight to minimize impact on the health of the animal. For a wood thrush, which weighs 40 grams (the same as about 7 U.S. quarters) a tracking device would need to weigh about 2 grams (about the same as 2 paper clips).

3. Commercial Aircraft

Aircraft equipped with antennae and receivers will collect tracking data from transmitter-tagged wildlife on passenger routes and automatically download information to users on the ground. Partnering directly with commercial airlines to use existing transmitters and leverage a network of this scale is unprecedented in animal tracking.

4. Big Data

By integrating tracking with environmental satellite data, scientists will be able to predict why, how, where, and when animals move. These movement models can reveal connections between important conservation issues, such as climate effects on animal movement, infectious disease spread, and human-wildlife conflict. Together with industry, SCBI will explore working with existing wildlife programs to integrate tracking data into one comprehensive platform.