Good NUz Magazine Spring 2012
Published twice a year (spring and fall) for all alumni, this 32-page tabloid provides a digest of “good news” about the university – including college news, research activities, cultural affiliates, campus recreation, admissions and more – plus alumni association updates, awards, sustaining life member recognition and class notes.
By Carole Wilbeck Two figures emerge from the mist of an early morn- ing alongside a river in the upper Midwest. A five-foot-tall Eastern Greater Sandhill Crane on spindly legs unfolds powerful wings that fly it thousands of miles in migration each year, unhindered by a wallet-sized electronic package recently strapped to its body behind the wings. The other figure – a human form, though he’s barely awake enough yet to grasp this fact – holds a receptor for gathering data wirelessly from the bird-mounted sensing equipment. It’s a successful “fishing trip” for all involved, as the crane conducts its morning forage and Mehmet Can Vuran, UNL assistant professor of computer science and engineer- ing, collects information on the crane’s movements. Back in Lincoln, Vuran leads the Cyber-Physical Networking Laboratory in UNL’s June and Paul Schorr III Center for Computer Science and Engineering, stream- lining embedded systems for remote data gathering in challenging environments from Nebraska’s underground to the frozen Canadian tundra. He especially enjoys when his work comes to life in the wilds of Wisconsin, home of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo. With CSE colleagues Matt Dwyer and Sebastian Elbaum, and ICF ecologists Anne Lacy and Mike Engels, Vuran and students are developing Crane Tracker: an adap- tive sensor network to monitor migratory birds throughout the continent. “The idea incubated in one of our sensor networks courses,” Vuran said. “Several UNL undergraduate and graduate students helped build some of the components” as part of their learning through the years in that curriculum and also in embedded systems courses. The sensor system developed at UNL uses solar- powered electronic devices that wirelessly provide real- time information about birds’ locations and movements during migration – a feat that previously involved immense amounts of scientists’ time and resources. ICF has conducted traditional banding, with a field ecologist following the birds only at their breeding grounds. VHF transmitters have been used to follow migrating birds, but the receiver must be within a few miles of the bird. More recently, technology included satellite transmitters to record birds’ locations via ranging techniques – costing thousands of dollars per device, plus satellite data fees, and the disadvantage of data delayed up to 56 hours. Crane Tracker systems by Vuran’s team cost a fraction of that amount, and 96-99 percent of the data is received within a day. In summer 2011 Vuran and two CSE graduate stu- dents, Dave Anthony and Paul Bennett, conducted initial tests on Siberian Cranes at ICF’s captive breeding grounds in Baraboo. Their Crane Trackers were harnessed to the birds using a backpack design. During tests, the cranes were also monitored by a video camera to observe the birds’ reac- tions to their new backpacks, while the trackers recorded their locations and movements and wirelessly conveyed this information (including device voltage, ambient tempera- ture, and the bird’s horizontal and vertical acceleration, directional heading, pitch and roll). “The initial tests with captive cranes had very prom- ising results for the tracking device and the backpack technique,” Vuran said. Motivated by this success, the team harnessed a Crane Tracker to “JB,” a male Eastern Greater Sandhill Crane, for two weeks of testing in the wild. The initial field data helped the team improve Crane Tracker capabilities, and the Nebraska engineers continue to moni- tor the sensing, communication and energy consumption profile of the trackers, with next-stage testing on reintro- duced Whooping Cranes migrating between Wisconsin and Florida. “The Crane Tracker data is very, very accurate,” said ICF’s Lacy. “We get the detailed information we want and (with Crane Tracker) it’s much cheaper.” Her hope is that behavioral information gathered via Crane Tracker will, over time, layer into even more robust measurement. Bennett, who grew up in Grand Island near the Platte River where half a million cranes gather each spring, said he feels “a lot of motivation” for this work, which he’ll docu- ment in his thesis for a master’s degree in engineering. The project has expanded his engineering skills – from the basics of how to design a device that’s waterproof yet power-effi- cient, all the way to software refinements for gaining better data – and challenged him to be more insightful. Derek Homan, a computer engineering senior, has adapted the tracker work for undergraduate research, apply- ing it to study pheasants with Extension faculty at UNL’s East Campus. What’s next for this technology? With the birds “tweet- ing” their locations and activities, will there be family plans for the cranes? Can ecologists communicate with their trackers? On the horizon is more research, Vuran said, to make the trackers smaller, self-sufficient, dependable and more powerful; the ICF scientists want to reprogram and reuse these “flying labs.” Vuran said the possibilities are exciting: to “try new ways to decode the birds’ movements – their ‘onboard com- pass.’” Lacy agreed: “As the human impact on the landscape increases, Crane Tracker will help us find out how these birds successfully adapt.” In the last week of the summer tests at Baraboo, the Crane Tracker on one bird already showed ICF scientists a new discovery: a nearby roosting area they hadn’t realized was so popular with the birds. “There’s always something we can’t predict,” Bennett said. “That’s what makes it a great learning experience.” Learn more about ICF work at savingcranes.org. The phenomenon of crane migration season is a highlight of late winter and early spring in central Nebraska. For view- ing locations and timeframes, visit nebraskaflyway.com. College of Engineering A Wing and Some Software Computer Engineers Led by UNL’s Vuran Shape Crane Tracker to Help Birds Survive and Thrive (Above Left) Wearing its Crane Tracker backpack developed with UNL computer engineers, an Eastern Greater Sandhill Crane chick flies unhindered near the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin during testing in early fall 2011. (Middle) A tracker on a Sandhill Crane. (Right) UNL and ICF Teams: Dan McElwee (ICF), Eloise Lachance (ICF), Derek Homan (Undergraduate UNL), Anne Lacy (ICF), Paul Bennett (M.S. candidate UNL), Molly Stewart, Can Vuran (UNL), Andy Gossens (ICF). engineering.unl.edu