A “swarm” of bug-tracking drones and tiny radars are being developed to help conservation of rare insects in New Zealand.
The new tag-and-track technology is being developed at the University of Canterbury on New Zealand’s South Island.
Researchers hope it could lead to a deeper understanding of New Zealand’s threatened and endangered insects.
The research draws on years of experience in the area of bird conservation, where radio tracking methods have helped to protect many vulnerable species.
Experts have said that at a stretch the technology could also be used to study large invertebrates such as giant land snails but was simply too big and heavy for most insects.
Researchers have now made about 20 tiny so-called harmonic radar tags that are fitted to insects. They would then be tracked by a “swarm” of drones.
Steve Pawson, from the university’s College of Engineering, says bird-tracking technology has been a major inspiration.
“They have been doing radio tracking on many of these species over several decades now and the information that they learn from that really informs the conservation management. So, understanding how far do these things move, where do they go foraging, what are their foraging behaviors? Even things as simple as how long things live for. Unfortunately, the radio tracking technologies that are out there at the moment are too heavy to use on small insects. There is only a handful of our heaviest insects that can carry those and so we are really limited in our understanding of how invertebrates are moving through the environment, and if we have that knowledge then we can incorporate it in our decision making and our planning for conservation management operations,” Pawson said.
Trials will start on ground-based insects before the New Zealand team tries to tackle the complexities of tracking insects in flight. Field testing could begin in 2023.
Academics have said the study could also have applications in other disciplines, from biosecurity to medical imaging.
Among New Zealand’s endangered insects is the iconic Wētā. They are one of the South Pacific nation’s most recognizable creatures with their large bodies, spiny legs, and curved tusks.
Several species of Wētā are under threat from predation by birds and reptiles, and habitat loss.