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  • 01.22.14

Solar-Powered Fruit Bat Trackers Could Turn Bikeshare Programs Into Data Fleets

A small army of fruit bats is moving across Australia with tiny trackers on their necks to sense the environment around them. What if bikes could do the same thing?

Solar-Powered Fruit Bat Trackers Could Turn Bikeshare Programs Into Data Fleets
[Image: Bats via Shutterstock]

In the coming weeks, 150 fruit bats will flit across the night sky, carrying an accelerometer, a magnetometer, a compass, a smart GPS, and an audio sensor attached to their necks.

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The bats will wear what engineers have called a “Camazotz,” a device named after the fearsome Mayan bat god. But the circuit board encased in 3-D printed plastic and weighing less than 50 grams could one day track more than just the flying critters. Its creators say that the Camazotz could be embedded into public bikeshare programs, turning the bike fleets into large, mobile sensor networks for Australian cities.

Mapping the global bike sharing phenomenon.

Engineers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the Australian government’s major R&D arm, had good reason for designing a device crammed with processing power on something so small. While fuzzy, tiny, and very arguably cute, fruit bats (or flying foxes, as they’re known in Australia) are also known carriers of diseases ranging from Ebola to the emerging coronavirus, a SARS-like pathogen that may have originated in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, fruit bats disperse all kinds of seeds, playing a valuable ecological role. Australians aren’t allowed to kill them, because they’re considered threatened.

“Because of this controversial position they have, there was a lot of interest in tracking their movement,” explains Raja Jurdak, one of the engineers who designed the tiny, solar-powered circuit board that could withstand shifts in movement as the bats stretched and folded their massive wings.

Snoozing fruit bats with Camazotz sensors attached to their scruffs. Photo courtesy Adam McKeown.

The bats travel up to roughly 30 miles a night, then roost in colonies of tens of thousands during the day, during which time their sensor data is uploaded online. And if you think about it, Jurdak says, that’s not too dissimilar from the way public bikes work in cities like Melbourne and Brisbane.

“The network topography is very similar between bats and bikes. Just as bats have these roosting camps, similarly, the bikes have these bike stations,” Jurdak says.

Similar to the bats, Jurdak imagines a bikeshare fleet that could measure temperature, air pressure, and pollution levels. A network of these jam-packed sensors could create maps of urban heat islands and noise levels in different neighborhoods. Tracking cyclists could also help determine how the bikeshare experience and user uptake could be improved.

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Now that the Camazotz bats are on their way, Jurdak is in talks with various city councils across Australia to see if they’d be receptive to the idea. “Our grand vision is to have these bikes act as proxies for sensing the data of the city,” Jurdak said.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.

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