Melbourne: Researchers have developed a world-first radio-tracking drone to locate wildlife that can help scientists explore inaccessible areas and gain insights into movements of the world’s smallest and least known species.

Researchers used the drones to track radio-tagged bettongs, sometimes referred to as rat-kangaroos, at the Mulligan’s Flat woodland sanctuary in Canberra, Australia. The drones have successfully detected tiny radio transmitters weighing as little as one gram.

“The small aerial robot will allow researchers to more rapidly and accurately find tagged wildlife, gain insights into movements of some of the world’s smallest and least known species, and access areas that are otherwise inaccessible," said lead researcher Debbie Saunders from the Australian National University (ANU) Fenner School of Environment and Society. “We have done more than 150 test flights and have demonstrated how the drones can find and map the locations of animals with radio tags," Saunders said.

Oliver Cliff, from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at the University of Sydney, said the technology had generated international interest. “Lots of people are trying to do this. It is not an easy process, but we believe we’ve come up with a solution," he said. “We are still doing some fine tuning but we’ve achieved more than has ever been done before, which is exciting," Cliff said.

Saunders, a wildlife ecologist, came up with the idea eight years ago to track small dynamic migratory birds such as the endangered swift parrot.

The new system has been built and tested over the past two and a half years with Robert Fitch and his team at the ACFR.

The robot consists of an off-the-shelf drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The custom-built miniature receiver and antenna provide real-time information on radio-tracked wildlife, which are mapped live on a laptop.

ANU associate professor Adrian Manning, also from the Fenner School of Environment and Society, has helped the team by attaching VHF and GPS collars on the bettongs.

“Radio tracking of collars manually is very time consuming," Manning said. “Early indications are that the drones could save a huge amount of time. If you have two operators working and they can put the drone up in two bursts of 20 minutes, they can do what would take half a day or more to do using ground methods," Manning said.

The study was presented at the 2015 Robotics: Science and Systems Conference in Rome, Italy.