Berkeley - For scientists studying the Leach's Storm Petrel,
monitoring the shy seabird's nest activity meant sticking
a cumbersome remote camera or a daring arm into burrows. But
starting Monday (Aug. 5), biologists and petrel buffs around
the world will be able to monitor a popular breeding site
in real time through the Internet while sitting comfortably
in front of their computers.
Wireless sensor technology developed through a partnership
between the University of California, Berkeley, and the
Intel Research Berkeley laboratory is making this powerful
method of habitat monitoring possible. Over the summer,
researchers from the Intel lab, in the city of Berkeley,
and from UC Berkeley teamed with biologists from the College
of the Atlantic in Maine to install a network of more than
20 miniaturized sensors, or motes, on nearby Great Duck
Each device, slightly bigger than the two AA batteries
powering it, is now beaming back raw data about the conditions
in the burrows and the island's microclimate that will be
viewable to the public at http://www.greatduckisland.net.
"There is nothing else like this sensor network available
for conservation biologists, nothing that can provide good
quality data in such dense numbers," said John Anderson,
associate dean of advanced studies and conservation biologist
at the College of the Atlantic. Anderson and students from
the small liberal arts college in Maine have been studying
seabird colonies on Great Duck Island for the past four
years. "What's really exciting about this is that we can
get a feel for what happens on the island when humans aren't
there," he said. "This kind of sensor network will have
a profound effect on how we do field ecology."
The raw information provided by the motes will help biologists
understand why the Leach's Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa)
favors Great Duck Island over thousands of other islands
off the coast of Maine. "This is particularly important
in conservation questions," said Anderson, who also is a
UC Berkeley alumnus. "We want to know which islands are
important for the seabirds, and why. We could learn that
the microhabitat of Great Duck Island is unique and in need
Up to now, obtaining an accurate count of the elusive seabirds
involved expensive, carefully planned trips to the island
with a pen, paper and a portable video system - dubbed the
"petrel peeper" - that was transported by wheelbarrow or
several biology students.
Biologists believe the 237-acre island, located 12 miles
from Acadia National Park, may be home to one of the largest
petrel breeding colonies in the eastern United States. The
elusive seabird is particularly challenging to study because
it spends most of its life offshore, returning to land only
during the sensitive breeding period from the end of May
through October. On land, the petrels stay hidden during
the day to avoid predators, typically emerging after 10
The motes were placed in six burrows and the surrounding
brush, covering an area just larger than half a football
field. "From the biological side of things, sample size
is very important," said Anderson. "The more individuals
you can look at, the more you know about the health of the
The idea for the project began through Anderson's friendship
with Alan Mainwaring, a research scientist at the Intel
Research Berkeley laboratory. "We were looking for an application
to field test the motes, and John needed a reliable way
to monitor the petrels throughout the year," said Mainwaring,
who received his PhD in computer science from UC Berkeley
three years ago.
With Anderson's input, the researchers designed the motes
to detect light, barometric pressure, relative humidity
and temperature conditions. An infrared heat sensor detects
whether the nest is occupied by a seabird, and whether the
bird has company. Motes within the burrows and around the
brush send readings out to a single gateway sensor above
ground, which then relays collected information to a laptop
computer locked away at a lighthouse on the island. The
laptop, also powered by photovoltaic cells, connects to
the Internet via satellite.
The sensors used in this project are the newest generation
of UC Berkeley motes, called Mica, and communicate with
each other via radio signals sent at 40 kilobytes per second.
David Culler, computer science professor at UC Berkeley
and director of the Intel Research Berkeley laboratory,
worked with UC Berkeley graduate students to develop the
sensor boards and networking software for the Mica motes.
"The unique requirements of monitoring wildlife really
pushed the engineering of the Mica motes in new directions,"
said Culler. Biologists aren't able to visit research sites
more than a few times a year, and they avoid doing so to
lessen the negative ecological impact of repeated human
presence. It therefore became especially important to reduce
the motes' power consumption so the sensors would last between
visits. The motes in the burrows can run continuously on
two AA batteries for six months, while the relay sensor
- which consumes more power - is rigged to a solar panel.
Biologists also have the flexibility of moving the sensors
around to where they are needed most. "The network is self-organizing,"
said Culler. "The nodes will automatically search for signals
from neighboring networks and adapt to changes in position."
Joe Polastre and Robert Szewczyk, two UC Berkeley graduate
students and summer interns at Intel, noted the importance
of keeping the motes small enough so they wouldn't be intrusive
for the seabirds. "We can even shove the motes into the
dirt walls of the burrow if we need to," said Polastre.
Mainwaring pointed out that motes placed in an office building
or home do not need to contend with rain, sand or a curious
seabird's beak. He said the motes in the burrows are protected
from dirt and moisture by a 10-micron thick polymer coating
that is biologically inert. An acrylic, cylindrical casing
protects the motes above ground.
The researchers will be monitoring the data and improving
on the system over the next several months. They plan to
return to Great Duck Island in April to deploy more motes
before the start of next year's breeding season.
The collaborative project is one of many innovative initiatives
associated with the UC Berkeley-based Center for Information
Technology Research in the Interest of Society, or CITRIS.
The center is one of four California Institutes for Science
and Innovation launched by Gov. Gray Davis to spark a new
generation of cutting-edge technologies.
Through CITRIS, the researchers are developing future habitat
monitoring projects at sites within the UC Natural Reserve
System, including the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve
in Idyllwild, Calif. The researchers also have many ongoing
projects with other UC Berkeley departments using sensor
The project also gives computer scientists a chance to
get away from their desks and into the field. "The thing
that really attracted me to this project was the ability
to take abstract algorithms and try them out in a real application,"
said Robert Szewczyk. "We've got these small devices that
we're claiming can be deployed for remote sensing applications.
So let's try it, right?"