Bug-tracking drone swarms to keep New Zealand buzzing with future food

insect tracking drone

The insect world, consisting of up to 10 million species, is vital for the survival of most life on Earth. Worryingly, though, these invertebrates are vanishing from the planet at an alarming yet. This is why researchers are now developing drones that will track and follow insects in real-time to fuel conservation efforts.

From acting as pollinators in plant reproduction and improving soil fertility through waste bioconversion to contributing to natural biocontrol for harmful pest species, insects are fundamental to the survival of humankind.

So much so, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is convinced that insects offer a huge potential for enhancing food security. The agency even promotes 1,900 edible bug species as healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef, and fish.

In New Zealand, meanwhile, more than 1,000 insect species are threatened or at-risk. In many cases, entomologists draw a blank when it comes to precise information about their habitat and home range, how far they can travel, or even how long can they live.

Researchers believe the right tracking equipment could help bridge this knowledge gap and allow experts to develop more effective conservation management strategies.

And so, a research team at University of Canterbury has spent the last three years building a wireless solution for tracking insects using drone-mounted radar.

Tracking insects with radar drones

Dr. Stephen Pawson and Dr. Graeme Woodward have been working together for three years on wireless solutions for tracking insects.

As Dr. Graeme Woodward, a signal processing expert at the university’s Wireless Research Centre, explains:

We have fabricated about 20 test harmonic radar tags to date, allowing us to experiment with various parameters and build an understanding of tag design.

These tiny tags can be as small as two or three millimeters wide. And with the transmitters fine-tuned for mobility and low-power operations, the associated drone technology will be able to gather crucial information in complex landscapes, at greater distances, and at a much lower cost.

Dr. Steve Pawson, a senior lecturer and forest entomologist at the university’s School of Forestry, quips:

The idea is that we could activate a swarm of drones that would be able to track and follow the insect in real-time.

The field testing for this project is expected to begin in 2023. The researchers will first try out the technology on ground-based insects and then proceed to track insects in flight. The team is positive that their research will contribute to potential applications in other fields also, such as biosecurity and medical imaging.

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