Giant pandas may well prefer bamboo to laptops, but wireless technology is helping researchers in China in their efforts to protect the endangered animals living in the remote Wolong Nature Reserve.
Wireless technology recently installed by Intel Corp. in the mountainous 500,000-acre reserve is helping researchers communicate with one another as well as download and record data about the pandas' lives and movements — simple activities that were cumbersome and time-consuming in the preserve before the technology upgrade.
Researchers "can take the laptops out into the field and record data," said Katherine Feng, project specialist for the nonprofit international education organization GLOBIO. "I think it will aid in research and breeding programs, and help protect pandas from extinction."
About 300 giant pandas live in the Wolong Nature Reserve — half in captivity and half in the wild. Only about 1,500 of the animals are left in the world.
Invisible high-frequency threads now link the reserve's main working areas, including an administrative office, the Wolong Giant Panda Museum, and a research center with panda breeding center, nursery, playground and hospital.
Wi-fi, short for wireless fidelity, describes a narrow range of frequencies used to transmit data over short distances. Antennas bounce signals off relays strategically placed around the reserve, which then connect users to the reserve's computer network.
Wi-fi networks aren't new, but they usually are set up in densely populated areas.
"What's different is this is in a very remote area. This was a perfect application for wireless technology," said Bill Calder, a spokesman for Intel in suburban Hillsboro, home to the chipmaker's largest wafer production facility.
The panda reserve encompasses a high-mountain temperate rain forest in the heart of China with dense stands of bamboo and deciduous trees. One of the highest mountain passes in the reserve reaches 14,000 feet. The reserve is also home to panthers, macaques and golden monkeys.
Intel used an existing broadband line to patch the network together and donated top-of-the-line Centrino mobile laptops for the project. They teamed up with GLOBIO to install the relays and the two organizations also created a children's learning lab inside the Wolong Giant Panda Museum — connecting Woodstock Elementary School in Portland with local teachers and students near the reserve.
Prior to the upgrade, researchers relied on paper notebooks to record the health of each growing panda, and access to records was limited. Sometimes the most efficient way to move data and look up animal histories required driving several miles to another location. Cellular phone use was spotty in the reserve and dial-up access was also unreliable. A lone computer in the administration building had a broadband hookup.
"That's great, when you are that one person at that computer in that office," Calder said. "But there were a number of other researchers who weren't able to communicate over any kind of network."
He said Intel sees an ever-growing market for wi-fi in China and has installed research and assembly plants in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu.