With our focus on innovation and education at Microduino, it’s sometimes easy to forget the fantastic real-world applications our microprocessors can have. We received a reminder recently when we were approached by a group of wildlife researchers who had encountered a very unusual problem.
The International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) works to study and conserve birds of prey around the world through both research and action plans, like breeding and political lobbying. Recently, they have begun a project to save the vulture population in South Asia. It’s especially important work because vultures are critical in preventing the spread of disease through the ecosystem.
Today, the vulture populations in India, Nepal, and Pakistan are at risk due to contamination by drugs used on livestock in the area. The ICBP launched a husbandry program to replenish the vulture population through captive breeding.
The Challenges of a Unique Situation
You may be wondering where tiny stackable Arduino-compatible microprocessors fit into this. Well, it turns out one crucial component of a vulture captive breeding program is monitoring the conditions in the birds’ nests to make sure the eggs are in their optimal environment. That means temperature and moisture sensors, primarily, and a few other measurements, too.
Another part of that optimal environment is a nest that doesn’t have any visible electronics. Everything in the nest needs to look entirely natural or the mother vulture might destroy the sensors.
That would defeat the entire purpose of the endeavor, obviously, and it’s actually the primary reason the ICBP turned to us. Standard Arduino parts are far larger than Microduino, and would have required sensors and parts to be visibly placed around and inside the nest.
To cut a long story short, the ICBP asked us to build an artificial egg filled with sensors that could keep the researchers apprised of how the nest was doing. It needed to be indistinguishable to Mom, and it needed to operate without human contact until the eggs hatched.
After discussions with the ICBP and some internal brainstorming, we came up with a basic philosophy for the project. Human visitors to the nests would completely disrupt the vultures from caring for their eggs, so our imposter would need to remain undercover for the entire 70-day hatching cycle.
Therefore, we decided the egg would carry as little of the workload as possible. Power conservation became a critical factor, and so the egg’s only duties would be to read data from its sensors and transmit it to a nearby terminal via low-power Bluetooth. Wi-Fi was off the table for its power consumption, and of course any kind of processing and analysis was way out of bounds.
We carefully selected a few Microduino modules and accessories. Each Microduino module is approximately one square inch. We ended up creating a stack of three modules. That’s about a 3”x1” piece, which is small enough to fit inside an average-sized vulture egg.
Inside the Egg
- Microduino Core Module – The main microprocessor. We used our lighter, lower-powered model for additional power savings.
- Microduino Bluetooth Module– This would be used to communicate with a terminal hidden nearby.
- Multisensor Module – This piece is typically used for its gyrometer and accelerometer, but the ICBP relies more on its barometer.
The three modules are connected using Microduino’s unique stacking capabilities. We wired them to 14 temperature sensors lining the inner surface of the eggshell, as well as a humidity sensor. An 1,800mAh lithium ion battery can keep everything running for the 70 days required, and it all fits nicely into the very small space offered by an average vulture egg.
Speaking of, how exactly do you build an artificial vulture egg?
Physical Construction of the Egg
In its final form, the egg itself has two components. The device had to look and feel right to the mother vulture, while still being able to withstand the elements and other physical stresses it might encounter. Most importantly, it had to protect its delicate electronic “yolk.”
We ended up constructing an inner skeleton of sorts. Using a computer-controlled laser cutter, we designed and fashioned a wooden enclosure that could secure and protect the Microduino stack and battery.
For the shell, we settled on PA220 nylon. This is a high tech, durable material that feels quite similar to a vulture egg. It’s good enough to fool Mom, in any case!
We used a laser sintering machine to construct the shell around the wooden enclosure. The temperature sensors attached to the inner shell at various places, allowing for accurate reading of conditions inside the egg.
So that’s our egg, inside and out. Now, how to get its data to the good people at the ICBP?
Data-Relay Terminal and Communication
The egg connects via low energy Bluetooth to what we call a data-relay terminal. This is close enough to the egg to talk to it and even take some useful readings on its own, but far enough that researchers can visit it without disturbing the mother vulture.
Inside the Data-Relay Terminal
- Wi-Fi enabled Raspberry Pi – This microprocessor stores data from the egg and the terminal’s own sensors.
- Microduino Core+ – Our more powerful model of the module driving the egg.
- Bluetooth Low Energy Module – This is paired with the matching module in the egg.
- Real-time Clock Module – This is used to ensure data integrity and timestamp readings.
- Weather Station Module – Our multifunctional Microduino Weather Station module can detect light levels, air pressure, temperature, and humidity. The terminal is placed close enough to the egg that these are useful readings for monitoring the conditions of the nest. Combined with the information from inside the egg, the ICBP has an excellent picture of how the real eggs are doing.
When connected to the Internet, the terminal uploads data to a cloud server we designed and built for this project. The software can construct a 3-D module of the surface-temperature gradient of each egg, as well as providing real-time updates of the other readings taken from the egg and terminal.
Next Step – Into the Field
We built a number of eggs and terminals for the ICBP, and they will be deployed soon for field testing. The ICBP researchers are very, very happy with what we created, and we think it’s pretty great, too!
It was an honor to apply our technologies and efforts to such an important cause, and it’s gotten us thinking about other potential environmental applications for Microduino. It’s sometimes easy to get wrapped up in engineering and tinkering for its own sake, but it’s important to remember that even a hobby can be used to make a real positive change in the world around us.