Antarctica penguin pics beamed by satellite

In honor of World Penguin Day, tech firm Cambridge Consultants announces a plan to use Raspberry-Pi-equipped cameras to help labs keep an eye on penguins in real time.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

Observing penguins in real time can hopefully help scientists mitigate factors that are leading to their decline. Alasdair Davies/Zoological Society of London

The problem with putting wildlife-observing cameras in Antarctica -- aside from going there in the first place -- is that you have to go back to the frigid, ice covered southern tip of our planet to retrieve the memory cards on which the photos are captured.

Now, technology firm Cambridge Consultants has developed a series of Raspberry-Pi-equipped cameras for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) that are capable of beaming their images back to research labs using the Iridium satellite network.

"Iridium were chosen because they have the only truly global satellite system covering every inch of the Earth's surface," Jonathan Pallant, senior engineer at Cambridge Consultants, told Crave. "Obviously this is vital for getting information back from remote areas around the globe."

The cameras were deployed in January 2014 and will spend about a year on our coldest continent, capturing pictures of Adelie penguins in an effort to find out how things like climate change, fisheries, disease, and pollution affect their numbers.

"We count penguins from the images, and observe when they arrive to breed," Oxford University Penguinologist (yes, that's a real job) Tom Hart told Crave. "Data from a whole load of cameras are put together to understand when penguins breed each year and how long it takes to raise chicks. Overall, this helps us to understand the timing of ice, climate change, and fisheries on penguin survival and reproduction."

The initiative is part of the Penguin Lifelines Project, created by Hart, and is being executed in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oxford University, the ZSL, Oceanites, and Stony Brook University.

Alasdair Davies/Zoological Society of London

The custom-made cameras, which are called Instant Wild, having no moving parts, so they can work in temperatures down to -45 degrees Fahrenheit. They use external lead acid batteries that are regularly topped up with solar panels. The life of the batteries is weather dependent, but the researchers are hoping to get a year out of them.

"The cameras are triggered using a passive infra-red sensor," Pallant told Crave. "The trigger input goes to a very low-power microprocessor, which then wakes up and controls one of two shutterless CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) imaging modules. One CMOS module has an IR filter for taking daytime pictures and the other has no IR filter to give it a night-vision ability. We also developed a powerful yet invisible infra-red flash to boost its night-vision abilities."

The researchers claim that this is the first time that satellites have been used to instantly transmit images and data from Antarctica.

"The idea of using Instant Wild on penguins is the ability to get data back in real time and from very remote areas," says Hart. "We already monitor a lot of penguin colonies by direct observation and cameras. The difference that a satellite camera makes is the ability to monitor some really remote places. There are places in Antarctica we want to monitor that we can only get to every five years or so. These cameras are a game-changer because we are now able to see what is going on without being there."

News of the cameras' deployment was announced on Friday, April 25 in honor of World Penguin Day.