Otters, meerkats, and Galapagos tortoises at the London Zoo are the latest guinea pigs in testing a new technology that could allow us to spy on wildlife in real time almost anywhere in the world.
The action will be coming to you thanks to a new wildlife “channel” known as TV whitespace. These are television channels that no one else is broadcasting on. Left free by regulators to prevent broadcast interference, wildlife researchers are hoping they can harness these unused “spaces” to connect to camera traps and other recording devices in the field.
The initiative stems from research to link up remote devices at far-flung conservation sites as part of the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) EDGE of Existence program, which aims to conserve species on the edge of extinction. The zoo footage will be streamed via YouTube until December, and will show otters in their “holt” or indoor enclosure, meerkats out in their exhibit, and Galapagos tortoises roaming their leafy home.
Currently, the only way to gather data from remote devices in the field is with some kind of communications network. In remote areas, that means co-opting cell phone networks. However, the signal is often patchy or non-existent, “especially if you’re talking about a rain forest in the middle of Africa,” the ZSL Conservation Technology Unit‘s Alasdair Davies said.
“The beauty about whitespace is that it’s at a perfect frequency to become long distance,” he said. “It penetrates well through foliage and trees, which is exactly what we want.
“Whitespace is [also] fast,” he added, “and you can get the data in real time, and that’s the real key here.”
If a rain forest animal trips a camera, the video clip is sent on a whitespace channel via the Internet to a data gathering point. This so-called “node” hidden within a 6.2-mile (10-kilometer) range then beams the information to the wider world via satellite, Davies explained.
On Its Own
It’s a system that can, quite literally, be left to its own devices. “Bury it in the ground, leave it, and it will just do its job and send back data,” Davies said. The gear can sit there for many years, he added.
Jorge Ahumada, executive director of Conservation International’s Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network, based in Arlington, Virginia, thinks the new technology has “huge potential to change how we monitor the natural environment.
“Because of technological limitations, people have to go over to the camera traps and retrieve the images from memory cards and do this whole thing manually,” said Ahumada, who isn’t involved in the ZSL whitespace project.
“If we can get the information back using the Internet space like this, it’s going to be really cool, especially in remote areas,” he said.
Monitoring Illegal Activity
Not only could the camouflaged cameras and sensors detect rare or elusive animals, they could also watch for illegal logging and habitat threats in remote conservation sites. Conservationists could pair whitespace devices with other real-time recording devices—like magnetic sensors that could detect the metal of unauthorized vehicles or poachers’ weapons—and get alerts over the whitespace network.
“The equipment can be deployed in highly remote locations and still send data to virtually anywhere on Earth,” said ZSL conservation project manager Olivia Needham. This is an important development because it will help conservationists combat “poachers using increasingly sophisticated techniques such as night vision scopes and silenced weapons,” she added.
The technology’s urban deployment has been going well so far. It’s actually now perfect for monitoring wildlife much closer to home, according to Davies. The successful trial at the London Zoo, in the center of the U.K.’s capital city, shows that “you can deploy a whitespace network right up against an urban environment.”
This has been difficult to do in the past because the available frequencies were already taken, Davies said. However, with whitespace “you’re shooting data between the TV channels,” he explained. So there’s no need to jostle for access to other frequencies.
What’s more, wildlife researchers can automatically find the available whitespace in any given area using a database provided by Google.
So, from inner city hedgehogs to rain forest tigers, watch this whitespace.