This Tiny Yellow Robot Spies on Antarctica’s Emperor Penguins

The vehicle dubbed ECHO slowly rolls up to the birds without stressing them and may allow researchers to monitor their ecosystem more closely

An image of three Emperor penguins standing next to a small yellow robot
The vehicle, ECHO, was designed by the Marine Animal Remote Sensing Lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. ECHO is part of a large-scale research project that monitors the impact of human-induced climate change on the Southern Ocean. Daniel Zitterbart/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Among thousands of emperor penguins in Atka Bay, a yellow robot named ECHO swiftly creeps over the Antarctic environment and patiently observes the birds. The autonomous, remote-controlled bot is about three feet long and stands at eye level with the adult penguins. ECHO monitors Southern Ocean marine ecosystems in real-time, year-round with minimal impact on wildlife. 

Since 2017, ECHO has collected tracking data from microchips taped to the penguins' feathers, reports Zoe Christen Jones for CBS News. ECHO was designed by the Marine Animal Remote Sensing Lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts.

The bot is a recent addition to a long-term, large-scale research project called MARE, reports Popular Science's, Lauren J. Young. The acronym stands for "Monitor the health of the Antarctic maRine ecosystems using the Emperor penguin as a sentinel," according to the WHOI website. A sentinel species are organisms used to determine risks to human. By observing a sentinel species, scientists can identify advanced signs of environmental dangers. In the case of emperor penguins, if the population changes where they swim, hunt, mate or give birth, it indicates a sign change in the health of the overall ecosystem.

"We all know that the world is changing, and that change will have dramatic effects on biodiversity and on ecosystems, especially in very remote areas, like Antarctica," says Daniel P. Zitterbart, a researcher at the Marine Animal Remote Sensing Lab to Popular Science. "To understand if that's true or not, we need to start monitoring those systems very closely now."

Some experts suspect penguins could nearly go extinct within 100 years as the climate crisis threatens their existence. A study published in Global Change Biology found if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at the current rates, warming temperatures could melt Antarctic Sea ice, and 98 percent of the emperor penguin population could disappear by 2100, reports Ashley Strickland for CNN.  

An image of a yellow robot standing idle in a snowy terrain
The robot can easily roll up to the penguins and scan the tags without introducing a harmful human footprint in an already vulnerable ecosystem or affecting the colony. Daniel Zitterbart/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Scientists must physically capture and tag each bird on their backs to track penguins. Each tag is a Passive Transponder (PIT) and Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) system that works similar to the microID chips inserted on pets' backs, Popular Science reports. But to gather data on the chips, scientists have to get close enough to the devices to scan them, and sometimes, penguins have an unpredictable foraging schedule, or the weather may be too harsh for humans to go out in the field, per Popular Science.

ECHO eliminates these issues by acting as a mobile observatory that can monitor thousands of penguins each year. The robot can easily roll up to the penguins and scan the tags without introducing a harmful human footprint in an already vulnerable ecosystem or affecting the colony, per CNN. The robot is equipped with LIDAR, or light detection and ranging, and a 360-degree camera that can detect penguins on vast terrains and uses an antenna to activate and read each penguin's chip.

"As a human, you cannot walk around and try to scan 15,000 or 24,000 penguins each year, it's impossible," Zitterbart tells Popular Science. "The amount of data we can gather through ECHO is something we would never be able to achieve with any other method in this place." 

While ECHO has only been tested for a year, researchers say the penguins do not seem to be afraid of it and don't mind it when it comes near. When penguins engage in a massive huddle during the wintertime, ECHO can sneak in and scan penguins as they brave the elements, per CNN. By tracking the colonies' behaviors over time, researchers can observe how penguins adapt and follow where they go to forage. In turn, these data points can also determine the true size of marine protected areas, CNN reports.

Now that the team knows the penguins won't run away from ECHO, they are working on improving the vehicle's battery life, which only lasts a day, and finding a way to protect the robot from sudden snowstorms, Popular Science reports. Eventually, ECHO may collect the penguins' behavioral and biological data, such as survival and breeding rates, how and when penguins collectively huddle for warmth, data on various calls and communication signals, and hunting strategies.