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Professors' Research Modernizing Insect Tracking

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tracking a cricket is currently an imprecise science. With the backing of a National Science Foundation grant, Hampshire College evolutionary biology professor Charles Ross and UMass computer scientist Kevin Fu will examine ways to modernize the approach. Ideally, the work will advance both the tracking methods used for insect research and the radio frequency identification (RFID) technology they intend to utilize for the task.

Cricket tracking is only one aspect of the larger project supported by a three-year $450,000 NSF instrumentation grant awarded to Five Colleges, Inc. Next-generation RFID applications could benefit medical, environmental, energy, military and safety, and transportation businesses and organizations. But don't underestimate the importance of tracking the movements of individual crickets within a population—that information can provide access to a wealth of otherwise unapproachable, fundamental questions in ecology, evolution, and population genetics.

"From my perspective, one thing that is critical to know is where the crickets are in a field, and who encounters whom," says Professor Ross.

In studying the unique interbreeding patterns of northern and southern ground crickets (genetically unique but physically identical species), Ross conducts much of his research in the fields where their territories overlap. 

"The way we typically do it is to grid off an area and try to find the crickets," he says. "But walking around fields disturbs them. Kevin's technology will basically locate and track crickets in the field, something that is very difficult to do."

The two first discussed the problem after meeting at a Five College consortium event. RFID technology, which Fu specializes in, is used for everything from mail delivery tracking to pet identification. Ross saw that it could be a far less invasive means of gathering data about his ground crickets. For Fu, the collaboration provided an opportunity to push the boundaries of a rapidly advancing field.

"We described our research problems and found that we may be able to help one another," says Fu. "My personal goal is to better understand the limits of security and privacy in RFID systems. There are so many questions, from technology to policy, that are all unanswered. And there is a lot of knowledge to be gained."

The challenges for developers of the next generation of RFID technology have less to do with size than with management. Built as small as a particle of dust, or at largest a pinhead, a tracking tag could easily be carried by a cricket. Power supply, computational abilities, and information transfer remain far bigger problems. Fu says his team's goal is to create a completely programmable, maintenance free tag that requires no batteries or wires, and which can be monitored no matter where the tag goes.

"That's their challenge, and they have ideas. Part of the goal of the grant is to come up with a generalizable solution that can be used on anything from a cricket to an inventory control system," says Ross. "This year, my task is to figure out how to get it on the cricket. Ideally it would be inside the cricket because crickets molt, and so anything on the outside of the cricket when they molt will be gone."

Once that matter is settled, the next step is figuring out how RFID readers will retrieve the data stored on the tags without disturbing the crickets or being disabled by the terrain. The plan now is to attach readers to tethered blimps that will float over fields and collect information from the embedded RFID tags. This will be tested in a specially built greenhouse at Hampshire before moving out to the pastures of the College's farm center, where cattle have cropped the grass to a height particularly favored by crickets. As Ross notes, the technological specifics will likely change dramatically as their research progresses.

"This is undoubtedly the first step in solving the problem. We're out there in unknown territory to some degree," says Ross. "It's hard to know what the outcome will be. But that's how science works."

The project will begin this spring, with students from both Hampshire and UMass actively involved in the research.


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