Tracking Tagged Orangutans in the Bornean Jungle with Drones, GNU Radio and an Airspy Mini

Due to various human activities causing the environmental destruction of it's habitat, the Orangutan is now classed as a critically endangered species. In addition to being endangered, Orangutans face another problem in that they are often captured and sold as pets due to their intelligence and cuteness.

To combat these problems, NGOs, charities and rescue centers have been using RF tags on rehabilitated Orangutans that have released back into the wild. The RF tag regularly transmits a data-less pulse at VHF frequencies which is then typically tracked using direction finding equipment such as a directional Yagi antenna. The range is only approximately 200-400m. 

In order to try and alleviate the range issue Dirk Gorissen has been working on creating a drone based system that could detect the VHF transmission and create a heatmap of Orangutan positions. The first iteration of his system uses an RTL-SDR, Odroid and lightweight loop antenna. A simple Python script then monitors the spectrum and logs the drones current location, altitude, speed and heading when a pulse is detected. Tests confirmed that the signal was able to be detected from the sky, but unfortunately the drone was eventually crashed and lost before it could be properly used.

In his second try a few years later, Dirk used a larger drone and switched SDRs to an Airspy Mini with preamp. The pulse detection code was also improved by using GNU Radio to create a DSP algorithm combining peak detection, cross correlation with a known template of the signal, and a phase locked loop. Visualization and data transfer is achieved through react.js and a Flask web server running on the drones WiFi hotspot. This time with the new drone and system Dirk was able to successfully detect and locate several Orangutan's on various flights, despite noting that some RF tags appeared to be glitchy.

Orangutan Detected with Drone, Airspy Mini and GNU Radio.
Orangutan Detected with Drone, Airspy Mini and GNU Radio.
Drone used in the experiment
Drone used in the experiment

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