NSF Awards Grant for Development of Wildlife-Tracking UAV

Researchers at Northern Arizona University (NAU) have been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can improve the ability to track small wildlife.

According to Paul Flikkema, professor of electrical engineering, wildlife biologists and ecologists are data-starved because current technologies for tracking small animals are time-intensive and produce low sample sizes.

Carol Chambers, a forestry professor and wildlife biologist, has spent years tracking bats. After a small radio transmitter is glued to a bat and it flies away, the researchers track the transmitter’s signal – often through rugged terrain, says NAU.

“It could make our work more efficient because people won’t have to drive around for days searching for transmitters – often hiking long distances and up to the tops of hills and mountains to find bat roosts,” explains Chambers.

“Better and faster is what we are shooting for,” says Michael Shafer, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who is named on the NSF grant with Flikkema and Chambers.

“Instead of using hand or pole-mounted antennas, we will put them on a UAV that can go up hundreds of feet and leverage the three-dimensional flight capabilities to more easily locate the radio tag signals,” he explains.

NAU plans to turn the UAV into a virtual pole that can fly hundreds of feet in the air and replace or augment handheld poles currently used to pick up radio tag signals.

The NSF grant of $601,896 is applied to instrument development for biological research. Instead of funding new science, NSF is funding NAU’s new tool development with the goal of quick distribution to the scientific community.

Phases for the three-year NSF grant are as follows:

  • Developing the engineering and core technologies;
  • Testing technology and getting the documentation. At the end of the grant cycle, users will be able to download instructions to build their own UAVs; and
  • Working with scientists at Cornell University to ensure individuals can effectively replicate and use the technology.


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