UC Berkeley News


Nice weather, if you're a polar bear. Inclement conditions may cease to bedevil wildlife biologists if remotely operated cameras can stand in for them.

America's wildest videos - coming to a monitor near you?
CONE technology aims at helping biologists monitor animal behavior from the comfort of their keyboards

| 12 January 2006

Almost every night, in a classic smash-and-dash, cars are broken into in Yosemite National Park. Windows are shattered; goods are stolen. It's not a human crime ring, though: The thieves are black bears, and they're mostly after food that visitors leave in their vehicles.

Soon, though, a new telerobotic surveillance system that enables visitors to "tour" the park via the Internet may also help capture footage of the bear burglars - which rangers could then use to educate visitors about what can happen if they leave food in their cars. The installation would be a proof-of-concept test for the Collaborative Observatories for Natural Environments (CONE) technology that Berkeley robotics professor Ken Goldberg is developing to aid scientists studying natural animal behavior in remote places.

"Biologists spend a great deal of time observing and recording nature using traditional video equipment," says Goldberg, who holds a joint appointment in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research and also Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. "So we're trying to help them bring the latest technology into the field."

Right now, the study of animals in the wild over long periods can be difficult, expensive, and sometimes dangerous. For example, scientists would like to watch families of Alaskan polar bears emerging from their dens in the spring. But while it's fine weather for bears, humans aren't accustomed to the whipping winds and freezing cold.

Working with his former graduate student Dezhen Song, now an assistant professor of computer science at Texas A&M University, Goldberg is designing robotic "observatories" that scientists could leave behind at their research sites. Once they return to the laboratory, they could log on to the Internet to see what the camera sees and steer it to keep an eye on their animal subjects from afar. The system draws from advances in high-resolution robotic cameras, long-range wireless networking, distributed sensor networks, and software algorithms for collaborative control that Goldberg and Song developed in the last few years.

The idea, Goldberg explains, is that the CONE would be contained in a small, wheeled trunk. After opening the lid, the system automatically kicks into operation, seeking out a satellite connection for Internet access and charging its batteries via solar panels. Meanwhile, the scientist has distributed around the landscape a handful of small, wireless sensors (pioneered at Berkeley) that monitor motion, temperature, and other variables. The sensors self-organize into an ad hoc wireless network and pass their data from one to another, bucket-brigade style, until the information reaches the CONE.

Depending on what the sensors detect, the telerobotic camera can then point itself at the source of the activity - for example, unusual movement off to one side of the panorama. The system might then create a time-lapse clip of that specific region for later review by the scientist.

What happens if more than one sensor calls for the camera's attention, or more than one scientist commands it to move simultaneously? That's when Goldberg and Song's advanced control algorithms kick in. The software uses mathematical principles to infer a consensus from a group of requests. That way, the observatory can point the camera in the direction that will satisfy the most users all of the time. They're also working on a time-based technique for the camera to respond in turn to each request as efficiently as possible.

"It's a hybrid system, so it's collaborative not just among people but also among sensors," Goldberg says. "A change in the image can be requested by people or by sensors, and that request can be weighted depending on who or what is making it. If the chief biologist wants to see something, her request can override everything else."

Currently, Goldberg and Song are working with the National Geographic Society on a plan to test their prototype CONE in Yosemite in the near future. They've also begun to discuss further scientific collaborations with Berkeley biologists.

For more information on CONE, visit the Project CONE website at www.c-o-n-e.org. The page includes a link to a Java applet that will show a CONE-powered interactive view of the Richardson Bay Audubon Sanctuary a Marin County wetland, that allows viewers to monitor bird activity and control camera movements remotely.

This article previously appeared in the December 2005 edition of Lab Notes, an online publication of the College of Engineering.