Marsh­land goes live on­line for fun, sci­ence

The Sacramento Bee - - Weather - BY MATT O’BRIEN

If a tree falls in the Tid­marsh Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary, it doesn’t mat­ter if there’s no one around. You can hear it any­way.

That’s be­cause re­searchers have hid­den dozens of wire­less sen­sor nodes, mi­cro­phones and cam­eras among the cat­tails and cedars of this Ply­mouth, Mas­sachusetts na­ture pre­serve. Sounds picked up from the marsh and nearby wood­land feed into an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence sys­tem that can iden­tify frogs or crick­ets, ducks or a pass­ing air­plane.

One goal is to help sci­en­tists bet­ter un­der­stand chang­ing cli­mates and im­prove wildlife restora­tion tech­niques. Be­yond that, though, re­searchers want to use the col­lected data to help power an on­line vir­tual re­al­ity world – a kind of al­ter­nate uni­verse mod­eled on live con­di­tions in the marsh, but pop­u­lated with fan­ci­ful crea­tures in­vented in a com­puter sci­ence lab.

Could this be the fu­ture of the na­ture walk?

As wire­less sen­sors get cheaper, longer-last­ing and more so­phis­ti­cated, they’re in­creas­ingly turn­ing up ev­ery­where. We’re al­ready see­ing them in “smart” homes and cities, pulling in data that can be an­a­lyzed in real time to smooth traf­fic flows, save en­ergy, mon­i­tor pol­lu­tion or re­spond to crime. But what hap­pens when you ap­ply such an in­ter­net-con­nected net­work to na­ture?

A re­search team at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy has been try­ing it out at Tid­marsh, a for­mer cran­berry bog con­vert­ing back to nat­u­ral wet­lands.

Re­motely spy­ing on na­ture isn’t new, but the project goes far be­yond sim­ple we­b­cams fixed on a hawk’s nest or sea lions’ fa­vorite pier – or even the more so­phis­ti­cated acous­tic sen­sors de­signed to de­tect an­i­mal poach­ers.

The team’s goals for what they call the Liv­ing Ob­ser­va­tory in­clude sup­port­ing wildlife restora­tion ef­forts. The sen­sors mea­sure tem­per­a­ture, mois­ture and other en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions.

But a broader mis­sion is to of­fer peo­ple a deeper un­der­stand­ing of na­ture us­ing their lap­tops, phones or head­sets. They can do so re­motely or in per­son while walk­ing a na­ture trail, said the project’s vi­sion­ary, Glo­ri­anna Daven­port, a re­tired pro­fes­sor and co-founder of the MIT Me­dia Lab.

“It’s gor­geous to walk in the woods and not be fid­dling with a cell phone,” Daven­port said. On the other hand, she added, what if you can learn more about the re­turn of an en­dan­gered species from a smart­phone app?

The idea has skep­tics who are wor­ried about the in­tru­sion of tech­nol­ogy and con­stant sur­veil­lance into the world’s last places without it. The Mas­sachusetts Audubon So­ci­ety man­ages the 480-acre sanc­tu­ary and took some time be­fore it agreed to out­fit it with live-stream­ing cam­eras and mi­cro­phones.


A cam­era mon­i­tors ac­tiv­ity Nov. 1 at a tree line ad­ja­cent to a marsh­land in Ply­mouth, Mass.

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