New radar, drone tech being developed to trace bugs


Tiny radar tags have been attached to insects to monitor their movement, and the researchers hope the new technology could help understand and protect endangered and endangered insect species.

Dr. Stephen Pawson, left, and Dr. Graeme Woodward use technology to track insects with a drone-mounted radar.
Photo: Delivered / Canterbury University

New Zealand has more than 1000 threatened or endangered invertebrate species – including insects, and there are many gaps in knowledge about how they behave, where they live, and how far they travel.

To find out more, Dr. Graeme Woodward, the University of Canterbury wireless researcher, with forest entomologist Dr. Steve Pawson teamed up to develop new tiny tracking tags that could help them record the movements of insects.

The Harmonic Radar Tags are designed to be attached to an insect and when they pick up certain radar signals (radio waves), they react by sending back a responding harmonic signal.

The team is also developing new drone technology to enable swarms of drones to follow an insect.

“So this little crush [of drones] and we can get really detailed information about how insects interact in the environment, “said Dr. Pawson.

They hope the system can help collect data on the insects over complex landscapes and great distances, and provide clues about how threatened species move and interact with their environment.

One of the prototypes of harmonic radar tags.

One of the prototypes of harmonic radar tags.
Photo: Delivered / Canterbury University

Harmonic Radar technology has been used since the 1990s but had to be adapted for use with small errors. The tags had to be very small, work well with less power, and handle greater mobility, Pawson said.

“New Zealand is known for its conservation efforts and its application of technology. For example, much of bird conservation over the past few decades has relied heavily on the knowledge gained from being able to track them via radio.

“But for our invertebrates, there are almost no invertebrates that are heavy enough and have the load-bearing capacity to carry battery-operated tags.”

The team built tags 2mm to 3mm wide.

“We made about 20 harmonic test radar tags … which allows us to experiment with different parameters,” said Woodward.

Researchers hope to begin field testing of the technology in 2023, starting with ground-based insects before moving on to flying insects.