Making Flight Connections

Commercial airplanes will soon track animal migration

Every winter, sun-starved residents of cold climes jet off to tropical locales. The same goes for the thousands of migratory species. But the itineraries of many small globe-trotting birds, amphibians, and butterflies are difficult to track with current technology. Soon, the best place to get that data may be airports.

In a new initiative called Partners in the Sky, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is teaming up with industry behemoths—including Airbus, Lockheed Martin, United Airlines, and Intel—to scale up wildlife tracking efforts and generate near-real-time data.

Engineers and scientists will equip commercial airplanes with antennae and receivers that can collect data from tagged wildlife. At the same time, they’ll miniaturize tracking devices to weigh one gram or less. Since tags will transmit to a network of lower-altitude receivers—airplanes instead of satellites—they will be much lighter and can be placed onto tinier animals.

With more and more species tagged, and with flights crisscrossing the country to keep tabs on them, wildlife tracking quickly moves into the realm of big data. Soon researchers might be able to solve some of the great mysteries of migration—and afford threatened migratory species a safer journey.

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