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Motion-powered bird backpacks take flight

Scientists develop lightweight, sensor-filled bird backpacks to track changes in migratory patterns.

High-tech bird backpack
A bird sports a fashionable backpack. Michael Shafer

Back-to-school shopping isn't just for people. Some birds are getting backpacks, too. Researchers at the Laboratory for Intelligent Machine Systems at Cornell University are developing tiny high-tech backpacks to collect information on bird flight patterns.

Birds aren't beasts of burden, so one of the biggest challenges around gathering flight data is finding ways to monitor the birds that don't interrupt their flying mechanisms. That's where motion-powered devices come in. "You can't put a 9-volt battery on a bird, so you need a lightweight energy source," says Cornell doctoral candidate Michael Shafer.

Shafer's backpacks have been tested on homing pigeons, which can only carry about 12 grams of weight. The teensy-weensy backpacks contain vibrational energy harvesters that gather the energy from the birds' movements. A piezoelectric device translates that energy into power for the built-in sensors.

The removable packs might be small, but each one is also stuffed with an accelerometer, microcontroller, wireless receiver, and memory module. This all comes together to make in-flight tracking of birds possible.

Homing pigeons have taken successful test flights around the lab at Cornell. The next step will be getting these backpacks into the hands of avian researchers where the devices could end up helping scientists monitor shifting bird migration patterns. It sure beats running after a flock in flight with binoculars.

Bird backpack
The backpack is extremely light. Michael Shafer