We recently had the opportunity to speak with two authors using new and unconventional animal tracking research: biologist Simon Ripperger of the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University and engineer Niklas Duda of the Institute for Electronics Engineering, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) in Germany. The talented duo’s animal tracking research went viral in October when one of their new studies confirmed that vampire bats in the wild socially distance themselves when sick.
The social distancing study was one of several consecutive case studies published since 2019, detailing the first-of-its-kind wireless biologging network they designed to track and study wild bats. The new biologging technology allows for simultaneous direct proximity sensing, high-resolution tracking, and long-range remote data download – all of which enabled their team to collect never-before-available data and observations on bats in the wild. The wireless sensor network has not only resulted in riveting findings about the social nature of bats, it has also opened the door to a new realm of scientific knowledge concerning the spread of infectious diseases, wildlife resources, foraging strategies, and physiology. The two brilliant scientists explain how their research came about and how new technology is enabling scientists and animal conservation experts to break boundaries in animal biologging.
Tell us how you all started working together and give us some background on your bat studies.
Simon: I’ve been involved with this project since the end of 2013 and was inspired by my advisor, who is also a bat biologist. He used to go to Greece for field work all the time, but their method of tracking and biologging bats was a bit unbelievable – he was essentially running behind bats, chasing them with an antenna. We knew there had to be a better way to do this, and the university had a long history of cooperation between computer scientists, engineers, and biologists. They decided to create a big, collaborative project on wireless sensor networks using a fully automated tracking system for bats.
Bats are a great species to start with because they’re elusive –it’s hard to observe them, and they're nocturnal and tiny. If your project can succeed with bats, it can probably work with most species. This was the motivation for the research unit, which was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG – Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft).
Can you tell us more about the wireless sensor network and how it gathers information?
Simon: I would say it is the most sophisticated sensor network for biologging –the degree of automation and data quality is certainly unique because we’ve combined different functionalities. We have high-resolution tracking to allow us to track animals with tags at small scales, and we also do proximity sensing. The tags can be as light as one gram, including housing and battery. If you look at systems for GPS tracking, the remote download function costs several grams because it’s so expensive in terms of energy. This all adds considerable weight to the tags, so it’s amazing to have this 1-gram tag with the option to retrieve data remotely.
For me as a biologist, the most exciting function is the proximity tracking. The tags talk to each other and exchange information, so we can get social networks of an entire group of animals every few seconds—simply mind-blowing if you have been studying social networks in animals—and the data quantity is amazing.
Why did you choose Silicon Labs for your wireless network?
Niklas: We have used Silicon Labs EFR32 SoCs since 2017 in all of our studies. Our tags have proximity logging and localization functions that operate at two different frequency levels. Before using Silicon Labs, we had to use three separate ICs to accommodate these functions. However, the Silicon Labs Flex Gecko integrates transceivers for both frequencies and a microprocessor core in one component. The ability to scale from three components to one makes the PCB smaller and makes it easier to control the radios, resulting in overall improved performance. We also wanted the Silicon Labs Gecko solution for its ultra-low-power functions. When tagging animals, we need our solution to be as small, light, and low power as possible, and Silicon Labs solutions support this need.
Can you tell us more about what you have learned about bats from your studies with the technology?
Simon: The first study we conducted was on noctule bats: European bats that live in city parks. Every few days, the bats switch their roosting site; therefore, we wanted to find out how offspring know where the group’s ever-changing roosting sites are located. Up until now, this has been impossible to track. With our wireless network, we found that mothers actually guide their pups to the new roosting sites; they leave the roost together, fly together, and arrive at the new roost together. This first simple application of our proximity sensing discovered a whole new form of maternal care in bats.
We then moved on to studying vampire bats, the most social species of bats. They have social connections similar to human friendships as they recognize each other, prefer to associate with certain individuals from a group, groom each other, and even share food. This behavior has been studied mainly in captivity because it’s so hard to observe bats in the wild. We were able to use our proximity sensors to see whether these social behaviors are simply an artifact of captivity or whether they held up in the wild. We took bats in captivity that we knew had social relationships with one another and released them back to the wild after two years. We could track associations between all the bats in their natural habitat and show that these social relationships were maintained in the wild, even with new bats to interact with and in a totally different setting. It showed for the first time that these relationships are very stable and persist in the wild. There would be no way to observe these behaviors without this technology.
One of your studies was widely covered by international media this past fall. Can you tell us about what you found?
Simon: We used our wireless network to observe bats' social networks and how they are affected when a bat is sick. We gave half the group an immune-challenging substance—a substance that doesn’t actually make them sick but makes the immune system react. With our high-resolution data, we could observe what happens to the network when the bats get sick. We found that their social encounters decreased –what we call social distancing –and after this period of sickness, the level of interaction with the “sick” bats went back to normal. Essentially, we found they manage to distance themselves from the group when they feel sick.
What are your future plans for studies?
Niklas: We’re spinning out a company, Dulog, to sell this technology to use with other animals. The technology is in development with several pilot customers and should be commercially available later this year.
Simon: The applications have no end – from preventing the spread of infectious diseases to studying information flow among social animals on food resources and even mating behavior—the sky is the limit! Why do social animals behave the way they do? With our technology, you can now observe their natural behaviors without interfering, but you can also use it to see how animals react to experimental approaches in the wild.
Where do you see the IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
Niklas: As IoT develops, sensors are getting smaller, which really benefits the scientific community – we reap the benefits of IoT that the larger commercial markets drive.
Simon: For biology, leaps forward have always been inspired by technology. Animal tracking has been around for 50 or 60 years, but advancements in IoT have allowed these recent developments to create a true renaissance in biologging and animal tracking. You can use benefits from ultra-low-power computing in various aspects of biology studies, and we not only get better data, but we can get it for a much wider range of animal species.
For more information on our EFR32 technology, visit https://www.silabs.com/products/wireless/technology.
After being forced to adopt an online-only format due to the COVID-19 crisis, CES 2021 retained its spot as the world’s premier can’t-miss tech bonanza. Though frustratingly hands-off, the event still managed to dazzle with a diverse roster of speakers, tons of virtual sessions, and hundreds of new product announcements. One speaker in particular, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, stood out to us as a pretty apt representative for what we’ve seen from our customers in the ways they’re tackling not just the technological advancements, but the societal changes happening before our eyes. The world’s most recognizable big-box chain isn’t exactly where you’d expect to go for innovation, but Doug’s live Q&A focused on how the retail giant is updating its tech stack with an emphasis on connectivity and data management to provide better customer experiences. His remark that ‘every company is a tech company’ is a great statement going into 2021.
This was a theme this year’s speakers returned to throughout the event - the convergence of technology and social corporate responsibility – and here are some of the key insights from CES 2021 and where Silicon Labs will be making an impact.
Sustainability Through the Smart Application of Technology
Technology has always been part of farming and improving agriculture outcomes, specifically being able to grow food crops more efficiently and sustainably, and it requires an approach to technology adoption that goes beyond traditional equipment updates. John Deer hired its first chief technology officer, Jahmy Hindman, in 2020 and he’s adjusted the company’s aperture from heavy equipment to include a new Intelligent Solutions Group that will focus on hardware and devices, embedded software, connectivity, data platforms, and applications. Jahmy’s session, Feeding the World with Precision Tech, focused on the ways elevating data insights can make agriculture as predictable as possible. Global demand for food is expected to increase by 50 percent over the next 30 years, which will put enormous pressure on agricultural productivity. Bringing just a little more predictability into a notoriously unpredictable industry through data-driven, precision planting can result in smarter farming decisions that deliver larger crop yields. John Deere’s high-capacity X-Series Combine Harvester won a CES 2021 Best of Innovation Award in the Robotics category.
EVs were also heavily featured this year, including a sneak peek at GM’s Cadillac Celestiq and the further-out 2023 Cadillac Lyric electric SUV. And this was just a taste of what’s to come from automobile manufacturers in pursuit of sustainability. GM alone is planning 30 all-electric vehicles by the end of 2025 on the strength of a nearly $30 billion investment. Sono Motors also made a splash with its introduction of the Sion, a mass market solar electric vehicle (SEV). With roughly 250 solar cells integrated into the body of the Sion, the car can be 80 percent charged in a half-hour – and it can share its power to charge other EVs. Making this technology accessible is the last barrier to mainstream adoption and Sono seized its CES moment to make a compelling case for urgent sustainability from the automotive industry.
AI and Machine Learning will Drive IoT Innovation
We’ve recognized AI and machine learning in IoT edge devices as one of the keys to making IoT devices trainable, actionable, and capable of extracting information and learning from the environment. CES 2021 validated this observation with the sheer volume of contextually aware devices being introduced. At Silicon Labs we have a soft spot for developers and Unity MARS, which was recognized as a CES 2021 Innovation Award Honoree and is helping creators build AR experiences more easily. The accessibility of tools like this empowers people to create VR and AR applications who would never have been able to before, opening up the development of all kinds of new IoT products and use cases.
Moving Healthcare Away from the Doctor’s Office and into the Home
Even before CES was moved online by one of the most significant health crises in generations, health and well-being has been an even staple. But this year high-performance computing, coupled withAI, took on more significance. One of our IoT Heroes, Airthings, introduced a new function of its Wave Plus that can actually analyze rooms and determine virus risks. The sensor doesn’t actually detect the virus itself but uses other information to determine the risk of possible transmission. Variables including temperature, humidity, and the number of people present based on CO2 emissions helps score the likelihood of a virus circulating move around the room. A low score triggers a suggestion like increasing airflow or asking some guests to leave.
This aligns with our observation that COVID-19 has compelled the healthcare industry to shift care away from clinical settings and into the home. Once rarely used remote treatment options like telemedicine are going mainstream and more patients routinely use video conferencing on smartphones and tablets to minimize in-person visits to doctors’ offices, clinics, or hospitals by interacting directly with healthcare workers through their connected screens. Physicians are increasingly prescribing smart medical monitoring equipment like pulse oximeters, heart rate monitors, and blood glucose monitors to patients on a more frequent basis. Smart medical device manufacturers are racing to add new connectivity technology like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth into these devices to connect to them to the internet. Through these new connected smart medical devices, doctors can instantly assess their patients’ status and render treatment remotely, helping to ensure valuable hospital beds remain available for those who truly need inpatient care.
Like most of the industry, CES is an important part of Silicon Labs’ calendar. Learning that it would be remote this year was actually one of the true harbingers of just how serious the global pandemic was being treated. We missed being in Vegas and missed seeing our friends and colleagues, and most of all we missed being up close and personal with all of the ways these companies are bringing the power of connectivity to bear on today’s problems. But over the last four days we’ve been encouraged by the resilience of our industry and inspired by how past innovations in connectivity, networking, and access to development tools are making all of these things possible in pretty trying and unprecedented circumstances.
We’re looking forward to seeing you there in person next year!
As a developer, you know that not all dev kits are equal. The features can make a huge difference in your development process. While most development kits out there do their job just fine – i.e., allow you to convert an idea into a prototype with a decent effort, there are also poorly designed kits, which can turn your project into a nightmare. However, an excellent development kit removes many headaches from your work, speeds up tracing and debugging, and provides interfaces for expansion.
But what makes a great Bluetooth dev kit? In this blog, we look at five powerful features that can accelerate IoT prototyping and enable you to create epic IoT products rapidly!
Rapid IoT prototyping sounds like yet another buzzword brewed inside the developer community. However, it's more than that. Rapid prototyping perfectly captures the way IoT products are created today. Developers build multiple iterations of their software and hardware design quickly and get early user feedback. This allows them to adjust the design based on actual user-experience and finalize a successful prototype rapidly.
There are two types of development tools for rapid IoT prototyping. You can build a prototype on Arduino or Raspberry Pi and complete the project with another, more professional software and hardware platform. However, more advanced developers prefer to craft everything from scratch with dev kits based on commercial chipsets – they allow more room for customization, and the final build is closer to a real product rather than a hobbyist experiment.
So, what do you need from a dev kit to rapidly prototype an epic Bluetooth IoT product? Here's a rundown of five powerful Bluetooth dev kit features that speed up your development work:
You spend a significant share of your prototyping time debugging software and hardware. A debugger is perhaps the most critical component of a Bluetooth dev kit, yet many available kits do not come with a debugger!
When choosing your next Bluetooth dev kit, make sure it hosts an on-board debugger to avoid having to buy a separate board. A debugger built on the board streamlines your dev work because you can simply flash the code and debug as it runs in the target processor. Also, on-board debuggers are typically compatible with the vendor's integrated development environment (IDE), giving you more advanced debugging capabilities.
All in all, a Bluetooth Dev Kit with a built-in debugger saves you from buying an extra board, minimizes the hassle, and speeds up development work and prototyping.
Developing wireless products, including Bluetooth devices without a traffic tracer, is hard. You can't see what's going on in the wireless link when you run into issues in the Bluetooth protocol level without a tracer, which makes troubleshooting pure guesswork.
A dev kit with a built-in packet tracing interface, on the other hand, allows you to capture the raw Bluetooth traffic flowing into the system and analyze it with a network analyzer tool. The analyzer decodes the data into a human-readable BLE protocol format, which makes debugging a breeze.
A packet tracer interface on a Bluetooth dev kit offers invaluable debug information about transmitted and received packets in wireless links, removes the guesswork from debugging, and speeds up prototyping significantly.
When kicking off prototyping, the first thing you do is to set up a serial line between the target and PC to get data logging going and commands flowing back to the processor. This allows high-level debugging – you can find out which parts of the code are not working before making the first deep-dive.
Getting a Bluetooth dev kit with a built-in virtual com port will save you from buying an external board for UART-to-USB bridging, and, again, you can remove much hassle from your project and get your prototype off the dev board faster.
Let's face it; nobody wants to buy a Bluetooth IoT product in 2021 without a smooth smartphone App and over-the-air (OTA) software update. Suppose you want to develop excellent smartphone connectivity and OTA capability for your product, a Bluetooth dev kit with support for a generic BLE mobile app tester with OTA should be on your shopping list. It will save significant development time and helps you to launch a convincing, market-ready prototype rapidly.
No developer wants to waste precious time building every component from scratch, especially when many hardware ecosystems offer vast amounts of off-the-shelf components. However, with a dev kit, which lacks standard interfaces to hardware ecosystems, you can forget about rapid prototyping – you are doomed to spend ages creating everything ground-up by yourself or wiring up dodgy, no-name components without proper documentation.
A Bluetooth dev kit equipped with the MikroBUS™ socket allows you to instantly expand your project with hundreds of auxiliary hardware components, including Click boards developed by MikroE.
However, if you don't' find what you need from MikroE's portfolio, you have other options such as the Qwiic® Connect System from Sparkfun, which is compatible with a range of boards provided by Sparkfun, as well as Adafruit, and Seeed Studio. Via the Qwiic interface, you can chain up add-on boards over the I2C interface and build up your dev kit with more functionalities (e.g., sensors, LCDs, and other peripherals) as if they were Lego bricks.
The IoT revolution is like one big innovation contest – developers worldwide turn their wildest ideas into products. Only the fastest developers can win, and that's why rapid prototyping has become the most popular market entry strategy in IoT. As a developer, you want to get a head-start in this race and buy the dev kit with the best bang for your buck – such as Silicon Labs Explorer Kit, which provides you all the five power-features, and more, as the only Bluetooth Dev Kit in the $10 price range!