The Internet of Animals Is Here to Track, Monitor, and Conserve Species

January 31, 2023 by Jake Hertz

The Internet of Things isn't just useful for remotely locking your doors or turning off a light. Connected devices may now play a role in saving wildlife.

While the Internet of Things (IoT) is a well-established market, a subsection of this field is the Internet of Animals (IoA). With the IoA, scientists equip animals with internet-tracking devices for research purposes.


An animal-tracking tag on a blackbird

A tracking tag on a blackbird. Image courtesy of Max Planck Society and Nature


One company at the forefront of this trend is IMEC, a Belgian research organization specializing in nano-electronics and digital technologies. In collaboration with the University of Antwerp, IMEC has announced a new IoA spin-off called the Internet of Small Animals (IoSA) designed to conserve, protect, and monitor the condition of animals.

In this article, we’ll discuss the history of the IoA and how IMEC and the University of Antwerp have applied this technology to observe birds, rodents, bats, and toads.


What Is the Internet of Animals (IoA)?

IoA devices, often referred to as "smart tags," allow researchers to track the movements, behaviors, and overall health of animals in both the wild and domestic environments.

The data collected through these devices is then transmitted to researchers via the internet, providing valuable insights into the lives of these animals.


Some of the technology that goes into the IoA

Some of the technology that goes into the IoA. Image courtesy of the British Ecological Society (Click image to enlarge.)


One of the key technologies that make the Internet of Animals possible is small, lightweight, and durable tracking devices. These devices typically include a GPS unit, an accelerometer, and a radio transceiver, which allows them to transmit data to a base station or satellite. Additionally, most IoA trackers include portable batteries for energy storage and solar panels or other energy harvesters to support continual operation. A major design consideration of these devices is the size and weight of the units, which are crucial to be worn by animals without hindrance or discomfort.

Another important technology is low-power wireless communication protocols such as Zigbee, LoRa, and Sigfox, which allow the devices to transmit data over long distances using minimal power. These protocols are crucial for tracking animals in remote areas where traditional cellular networks may not otherwise be available.


A Brief History of the Internet of Animals

While the Internet of Animals may sound like a relatively new concept, the idea of tracking animals with internet-connected devices has been around for decades

One of the first systems of this kind was the Argos system, which was launched in the 1980s as a joint French-U.S. project. Originally, Argos was used to track marine mammals like sea turtles and handle reports from remote automatic weather stations. Today, Argos is used to track other wildlife, such as birds.


ICARUS animal-tracking tags

Scientists lay out a row of ICARUS animal-tracking tags to recharge their batteries in the sun. Image courtesy of Christian Ziegler and Nature


In recent years, the Internet of Animals has significantly grown, particularly in the field of conservation and research. Space-based technology is one of the most exciting developments in the field. The ICARUS Initiative, for example, uses small, solar-powered transmitters to track bird migrations by sending signals to the International Space Station (ISS). Because the ISS is much closer to Earth than Argos satellites, the beacons can be much smaller and lighter, making it possible to attach them to smaller animals such as bees and other insects.


IMEC Announces New Spinoff: The Internet of Small Animals

IMEC recently announced a new spinoff in collaboration with the University of Antwerp called the Internet of Small Animals (IoSA). The organization focuses on IoT development to help conserve, protect, and monitor small wild animals, including birds, bats, toads, and rodents.

One of the key value propositions of the spinoff is a new technology IMEC and Antwerp researchers jointly developed: a new, lightweight proximity sensor that tracks small animals and insects. Additionally, IoSA has developed logging tools to complement its new sensor, enabling a centralized and accessible dashboard for high accuracy and low-power tracking of animals in IoSA’s network.

With the new proximity sensor weighing as little as 0.9 grams, the company hopes to unlock more functionality and more diversity in terms of which animals can be tracked via the IoSA. Ultimately, IoSA’s goals are to provide new insights to researchers, wildlife and conservation organizations, zoos, and farmers on how animals interact and move.