The internet of things makes it easier to turn off my lights from bed, but it can also give scientists a powerful new tool for gathering data. To be sure, using sensors to research data is nothing new. But the size — and cost — of such sensors have decreased to the point where they can change the way scientists study the world.
As a result, much like microscopes or computers changed science in earlier eras, IoT will change science yet again. “When you open up new tools, you can create a new niche of research,” says Simon Ripperger, a biologist in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University. Ripperger says, for example, there was no way for him to do research on bats’ relationships to one another before these sensors were developed. And now he can.
Ripperger, whose research is focused on bats, a few years ago teamed up with Niklas Duda, an engineer at the Institute for Electronics Engineering, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg, who was working on his doctorate. Together they endeavored to build some kind of tracking sensor for bats.
Prior efforts required scientists to capture a bat, put a sensor on it, then recapture the bat to get the data off the sensor. With Duda’s help, the bat research team built a wireless network that gets deployed on the ground near a colony of bats and communicates with tiny trackers containing several sensors, including accelerometers and tiny little bat EKGs. The result is not-quite-real-time time data on bats’ locations in their habitats as well as in relationship to one another.
What’s awesome is that with cheaper sensors, better and more ubiquitous wireless networks, and accessible computing, we can start to measure so many more aspects of life around us. Researchers have long used tools such as GPS collars with cellular radios to track larger mammals, but now we can open it up to smaller creatures and study more interesting things (like bats’ heart rates!).
For example, shrinking the electronics helped keep the mass of the computing equipment and radios low enough to avoid weighing down the bats. And adding new types of sensors helped researchers do more than just track where the bats congregate. They could also track how bats socially interacted, which allowed them to discover that bats socially distance when ill.
But if every biologist needs to entice a friendly computer science or engineering major to join their project, science will slow down. Eventually, we’ll need to see tools developed that can help researchers find the right sensors and radios for their jobs.
The Wall Street Journal actually profiled one of these tools. The generic data-gathering device from a non-profit called FieldKit is housed in a rugged case holding a computer that can work with an array of sensors. It starts at about $150; the price goes up as more sensors are added. But those designing for biologists and other real-world science have to keep a few things in mind.
Rugged is good. Design tools for a tough environment. And ensure they can be deployed easily by biologists, not computer scientists. If your biologists are trying to track animals, size matters. You can stick a GPS collar on a wolf or build a Fitbit for elephants, but creating a tracker for a murder hornet is harder.
Communication counts, too. If you want a long-range tracking device, GPS is probably your only option — unless you want to pop a cellular hotspot on a drone and follow the flock or colony. If a group has a set habitat, LoRA or some other long-range networks might work. But if battery life counts, a biologist might be stuck with limited data on LoRa, or find herself chasing a creature with a mobile phone while trying to stay within Bluetooth distance.
The tradeoff between power and size will force tough compromises. With big animals, not only can they handle the weight of larger computers, sensors, and radio modules, they also can handle the weight of a bigger battery. Electronics designed to stay asleep unless certain sensor thresholds are met can help keep power budgets low and batteries small. So can devices that only require biologists to share data once a day or only if the animal passes by a communication node.
If you think swapping out the 9-volt on your smoke detector at 2 a.m. is a chore, imagine trying to catch a wild animal to change the battery in its tracker. At least the smoke detector doesn’t have teeth. Or a stinger.
But in commercial and residential IoT settings, engineers are solving these challenges, which means that researchers and scientists will soon have a new way to see more of the world around us. And like the microscope, those tools will enable new science and new discoveries.