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