We’ve seen how collecting data on land with projects such as Harvard’s connected forest is making discoveries about climate change. But that only paints a small part of the picture. 71% of our earth’s surface is covered by ocean- and around 95% of this underwater world remains unexplored. The ocean plays an integral role in climate change. So how can the internet of things help uncover vital clues from the ocean’s depths?
This is a challenge that Michael Fedak, biology professor at the University of St Andrews, set out to solve. As a member of the global Marine Mammals Exploring the Oceans Pole to Pole Consortium (MEOP), Fedak started to work with elephant seals in the 80s. Why elephant seals? They traverse the globe from the Arctic to Antarctic and dive to depths of 2000m, so in tracking them scientists are able to gather unique oceanic data in the remote polar regions and thereby uncover how the oceans are being affected by climate change.
Fedak admits that the thought of tracking such huge animals in such a harsh environment seemed “outlandish” and he was met with a lot of resistance. However, the advent of the internet of things has made this project a reality and revolutionised research on marine mammals. Fedak and his team created a smart ‘tag’ that includes sensors, storage memory and a computer programmed with specialised software that manages the whole process, from capturing data to compressing and submitting it to satellites.
To capture seasonal changes, the tags must collect data for up to 11 months. To enable this, Fedak and his team created specialised software that makes smart decisions about when to collect data and when to transmit. The tags are programmed to favour data from the deepest dives and only collect a few readings a day even though it has the capability to transmit to a satellite up to 250 times a day. (It is worth noting here, that such technological developments don’t just benefit biologists, but anyone looking to develop IoT systems).
And then of course, there is both the ethical and practical challenge of how to attach these tags to the animals themselves without harming them. This had to be carefully planned; elephant seals weigh up to two tonnes and enjoy rolling around on the shore, so a glued on tag would be easily knocked off. The solution? The tags are attached with adhesive to hair on the seals’ heads or necks, and fall off when they shed their hair annually. And of course, once the sensors are attached, it is easy to monitor the seals’ wellbeing.
Fedak’s revolutionary IoT technology is now being used around the world, with different teams of experts attaching the sensors and monitoring the data. This global network is at the heart of the MEOP, and all of the data is collated in one single database. Collectively, the sensors have gathered 400,000 data profiles on the temperature and density of sea water, which is being shared globally via an open web portal with the aim to help us understand how the oceans are being affected by climate change.