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Ohio University engineering professor lands NSF grant to support biologists’ research

Pete Shooner and Megan Reed | Feb 6, 2017
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Ohio University engineering professor lands NSF grant to support biologists’ research

Pete Shooner and Megan Reed | Feb 6, 2017

A Russ College mechanical engineering professor has received a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop technology that will enable biologists to monitor thousands of small bird species wirelessly for the first time.
 
Backed by the NSF’s Instrument Development for Biological Research grant, Assistant Professor Jay Wilhelm plans to design low-cost Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems biologists and ornithologists can use to monitor birds’ locations, feeding patterns, interactions with each other, and other behaviors. 
 
Traditionally, birds are tracked using leg bands with unique identification numbers, but this method requires researchers trap a banded bird multiple times – often across countries or continents – then record the location in a public log. Wilhelm’s previous research helped modernize the process by designing small, GPS-enabled devices that can be strapped to larger birds, giving real-time location data to biologists.
 
“These devices work great for eagles and other big birds, but they’re too large and heavy for about 90 percent of bird species,” Wilhelm explained. “So the idea of this new project is to design a system of RFID chips and scanners that can be used to collect data on all of these smaller birds.”
 
A biologist using Wilhelm’s system would first clip a pill-sized RFID chip to a small bird’s leg. Then, antenna boxes placed around roosting areas, bird houses and even flowers, would read the unique RFID number of each bird that passes by and transmit that data wirelessly to researchers, who could then view it all using an open-source software platform Wilhelm is also designing. 
 
Wilhelm said these systems will be able to do more than just monitor migratory movements and will be easily modified to meet the demands of more complex experiments.
 
“They want to know how the birds interact – what’s going on inside a birdhouse, as far as sounds, temperature and feeding,” Wilhelm explained. “Sometimes they want to be able to do things like feed one bird and not another bird, so we can program that functionality into the design.”
 
Wilhelm got the idea in 2014 at an NSF workshop, where he met University of Oklahoma Assistant Professor of Biology Eli Bridge, who had already been using some RFID technology to study bird behavior. The pair struck up a conversation that eventually led to collaboration.
 
"Initially, when I got started using this RFID technology, I just was looking stuff up on the internet and doing the best I could to be my own electrical engineer,” Bridge said. “The results were okay – we had devices that worked but could be better. Jay is a real engineer, and his role is to pick up where I left off and provide some real professional engineering for the next generation of devices."
 
Bridge, who's also working with University of Oklahoma Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Jessica Ruyle, plans to use the systems to measure a wide range of behaviors, producing a fuller picture of the animals’ lives. For Wilhelm, the project is another example of how engineering and technology can benefit society. 
 
“I like the opportunity to work with people in different fields,” he said. “The end goal is to give them tools that were improved by engineering, so they can collect data and understand the natural world better.”