For decades, humans have built rovers to visit places we can’t easily reach, including the moon and Mars. Now scientists have built a rover to explore another challenging target: colonies of adorable penguins. It’s a simple idea, yet a huge breakthrough in the science community in researching wildlife.
A remote-controlled rover designed to sneak undetected into penguin colonies in Antarctica works better, a new study says. The penguin-camouflaged technology is so realistic, it even fools penguins into trying to communicate with it. The baby penguin rover has already offered never-before-seen footage of an emperor penguin laying an egg. Emperor penguins are one of the least understood species on the planet. Due to the extremely hostile environment, it has been quite difficult to observe them for prolonged periods of time. Moreover, these flightless birds are extremely shy and skittish around humans. The findings, described this week in the journal Nature Methods, show that when studying animals in the wild, it’s often better for humans to stay out of the way and let robots do the work.
Also, studying penguins with camouflaged rovers is less stressful on the birds than other methods. A penguin who feels threatened can shuffle away even while keeping its egg or baby chick balanced on its feet. When approached by a rover consisting of a platform and four wheels, penguins moved an average of about 3 inches. But, when humans approached, the birds moved a whopping 17 inches. On top of that, the penguins’ movements pushed them into the space of other nearby penguins. Since penguins can be territorial, the disturbance would ripple through the colony, resulting in fights and chaos for many rows beyond the target bird’s area.
“When the rover was camouflaged with a penguin model, all adult and chick emperor penguins allowed it to approach close enough for an electronic identification,” the study authors wrote. “Chicks and adults were even heard vocalizing at the camouflaged rover, and it was able to infiltrate a crèche without disturbance.” Finally, the researchers tried their rover out on elephant seals, who didn’t budge when a rover came close to their heads or tails. That was a good sign because elephant seal does not react kindly to someone approaching its backside.
This is significant because such robots could be used to investigate the lives of all kinds of animals without disturbing them the way a human scientist’s presence would. Future rovers could even go beyond wheels. The researchers imagined robots capable of tracking swimming and flying critters, too.
Borenstein, Seth. “Roving Chick Spy Keeps Tabs on Shy Penguins.” N.p., 3 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.
“Robot Disguised As Fluffy Baby Penguin Is Helping Researchers Observe The Shy Species.” The Inquisitr News. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.