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College of Engineering

A Wing and Some Software Computer Engineers Led by UNL’s Vuran Shape Crane Tracker to Help Birds Survive and Thrive By Carole Wilbeck Two figures emerge from the mist of an early morning alongside a river in the upper Midwest. A five-foot-tall Eastern Greater Sandhill Crane on spindly legs unfolds

Tracker systems by Vuran’s team cost a fraction of that

ment in his thesis for a master’s degree in engineering. The

amount, and 96-99 percent of the data is received within a

project has expanded his engineering skills – from the basics


of how to design a device that’s waterproof yet power-effiIn summer 2011 Vuran and two CSE graduate stu-

cient, all the way to software refinements for gaining better data – and challenged him to be more insightful.

powerful wings that fly it thousands of miles in migration

dents, Dave Anthony and Paul Bennett, conducted initial

each year, unhindered by a wallet-sized electronic package

tests on Siberian Cranes at ICF’s captive breeding grounds

recently strapped to its body behind the wings. The other

in Baraboo. Their Crane Trackers were harnessed to the

adapted the tracker work for undergraduate research, apply-

figure – a human form, though he’s barely awake enough

birds using a backpack design. During tests, the cranes were

ing it to study pheasants with Extension faculty at UNL’s

yet to grasp this fact – holds a receptor for gathering data

also monitored by a video camera to observe the birds’ reac-

East Campus.

wirelessly from the bird-mounted sensing equipment.

tions to their new backpacks, while the trackers recorded

Derek Homan, a computer engineering senior, has

What’s next for this technology? With the birds “tweet-

their locations and movements and wirelessly conveyed this

ing” their locations and activities, will there be family plans

crane conducts its morning forage and Mehmet Can Vuran,

information (including device voltage, ambient tempera-

for the cranes? Can ecologists communicate with their

UNL assistant professor of computer science and engineer-

ture, and the bird’s horizontal and vertical acceleration,

trackers? On the horizon is more research, Vuran said, to

ing, collects information on the crane’s movements.

directional heading, pitch and roll).

make the trackers smaller, self-sufficient, dependable and

It’s a successful “fishing trip” for all involved, as the

Back in Lincoln, Vuran leads the Cyber-Physical

“The initial tests with captive cranes had very prom-

more powerful; the ICF scientists want to reprogram and reuse these “flying labs.”

Networking Laboratory in UNL’s June and Paul Schorr III

ising results for the tracking device and the backpack

Center for Computer Science and Engineering, stream-

technique,” Vuran said. Motivated by this success, the team

Vuran said the possibilities are exciting: to “try new

lining embedded systems for remote data gathering in

harnessed a Crane Tracker to “JB,” a male Eastern Greater

ways to decode the birds’ movements – their ‘onboard com-

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 adaptive 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

(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).

part of their learning through the years in that curriculum

Sandhill Crane, for two weeks of testing in the wild. The

pass.’” Lacy agreed: “As the human impact on the landscape

and also in embedded systems courses.

initial field data helped the team improve Crane Tracker

increases, Crane Tracker will help us find out how these

capabilities, and the Nebraska engineers continue to moni-

birds successfully adapt.”

The sensor system developed at UNL uses solar-

In the last week of the summer tests at Baraboo, the

powered electronic devices that wirelessly provide real-

tor the sensing, communication and energy consumption

time information about birds’ locations and movements

profile of the trackers, with next-stage testing on reintro-

Crane Tracker on one bird already showed ICF scientists a

during migration – a feat that previously involved immense

duced Whooping Cranes migrating between Wisconsin and

new discovery: a nearby roosting area they hadn’t realized

amounts of scientists’ time and resources.


was so popular with the birds.

ICF has conducted traditional banding, with a field

“The Crane Tracker data is very, very accurate,” said

ecologist following the birds only at their breeding grounds.

ICF’s Lacy. “We get the detailed information we want and

VHF transmitters have been used to follow migrating birds,

(with Crane Tracker) it’s much cheaper.” Her hope is that

but the receiver must be within a few miles of the bird.

behavioral information gathered via Crane Tracker will,

More recently, technology included satellite transmitters

over time, layer into even more robust measurement.

to record birds’ locations via ranging techniques – costing

Bennett, who grew up in Grand Island near the Platte

thousands of dollars per device, plus satellite data fees, and

River where half a million cranes gather each spring, said he

the disadvantage of data delayed up to 56 hours. Crane

feels “a lot of motivation” for this work, which he’ll docu-

“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 The phenomenon of crane migration season is a highlight of late winter and early spring in central Nebraska. For viewing locations and timeframes, visit

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 – includ...

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 – includ...