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Penguin Cam! Satellite Technology Tracks Birds in Antarctica

No, it's not "Real World: Antarctica." It's a test for a satellite camera system that could change how research is done.
Penguins Antactica
Alasdair Davies / ZSL

On World Penguin Day, which takes places on Friday, scientists are hoping that satellite-enabled cameras can help keep track of penguins as the birds waddle through the coldest reaches of Antarctica.

Before, Tom Hart, a penguinologist (yes, that is his real title) from the University of Oxford, had to brave the frigid weather to collect penguin pictures from unconnected cameras as he sought to monitor the birds’ migration patterns and get a better idea of how they are affected by climate change, overfishing, disease and pollution.

The average temperature in Antarctica in winter, one of the continent's two seasons, is minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hart told NBC News that he enjoys working in the field. But solar-powered cameras that send out photos via satellite could help him collect more data, more efficiently.

“There are regions we can get to regularly in Antarctica, but this is about pushing the boundaries to those very remote areas that you can’t access every year,” he said.

Now, instead of manually collecting files, he can access them online through the satellite network built by Iridium, a global telecommunications company.

Penguins Antarctica
Alasdair Davies / ZSL

The current set-up on Antarctica’s Yalour Islands involves three cameras that transmit photos via a short-range wireless link to a central hub, which then sends the photos — along with location data, battery life information and a temperature reading — to a central server. The cameras can be triggered with a timer or motion detector, and take two photos seconds apart to give researchers a sense of motion.

Eventually, the technology could be sold or leased to researchers in other hard-to-reach places, or even to security personnel who want to monitor national parks for poachers.

“Imagine telling researchers that they don’t have to take a 12-hour flight, then spend eight hours on a boat, and then take a dingy ride to a small island to collect a memory card that might or might not be empty,” Jonathan Pallant, a senior engineer at Cambridge Consultants, who designed the camera, told NBC News.

“If instead you tell these people you can get these pictures sent straight to your phone within minutes of them being taken, that is something they are very interested in," he said.

One of the groups interested in using the technology to track rare wildlife and spot poachers is the Kenya Wildlife Service. While no price has been set for the cameras, the goal is to make them relatively inexpensive. For researchers everywhere, it could prove to be a useful complement to other cameras on the market, like the hardy GoPro, which provides video from the animal's perspective but no satellite connectivity.

If the satellite-enabled cameras can survive a year on the Yalour Islands, home to thousands of Adelie penguins, the team hopes to test them for longer periods of time in even harsher parts of Antarctica. Eventually, even couch potatoes might be able to browse photos of wild animals beamed in from the Earth's most remote areas on their laptops.

"Obviously, this is something that has to roll out gradually," Marion Campbell, program director at Cambridge Consultants, told NBC News.

In the long run, however, the plan is to make this technology widely available, she said. "We want to make this a product that can be installed in much greater numbers all around the world."