Remote Biology

Dezhen Song, assistant professor of computer science at Texas A&M University, is collaborating on a remote, robotic camera system that will give researchers and the public a chance to snap photos of rare animals - all from the comfort of a desktop PC. The technology could be used to meet various needs, from tourism to monitoring a crisis. Song took the time to talk with Texas Technology about the Collaborative Observatories for Natural Environments (CONE) project.


Can you talk about the CONE project and how you got involved?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding the project. I'm the principal investigator on the project, and we collaborated with UC Berkeley. CONE is about developing remote robotic observatories for natural-environment observation. We have deployed cameras at different sites for different applications. For example, we have deployed a camera to search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas - that's called the ACONE [Automated Collaborative Observatory for Natural Environments] project under the umbrella of the CONE project. We've also deployed a camera in the [San Francisco] Bay Area for bird watchers to study birds in California.

It's a big project with two purposes: One is to develop robotic technology to assist natural scientists observing nature; the other is to give the general public remote access to nature for education purposes.

Ken Goldberg [UC Berkeley professor of engineering] and I are both project leaders on this. We got the funding from the NSF in 2005. The majority of funding goes to Texas A&M, and part of it goes to UC Berkeley. For example, the ACONE project was primarily built here at Texas A&M while the CONE SF [Sutro Forest] project is led by Ken at UC Berkeley.


Are there plans to deploy this to study animals other than birds?

Definitely. I have been collaborating with several other field biologists who are interested in applying the technology to watch animals like grizzly bears or panda bears in China.


Have you considered deploying a camera system in places where there is the potential to discover new species?

Yes. Actually we had a few conversations with people from Africa. There are other constraints associated with that. If we go out of the country, it can be a budget problem for us, but we would definitely like to explore such an opportunity.


How does it work on the user end? How do users experience CONE?

There are two kinds of users. Experts like field biologists - who are prioritized in the system so they have more control than other users in the general public. If they log on to the system, they can access all the data - both online data and archived data -and can control the camera with the highest priority.

As a general public user you can reach us just like a normal Web site and control the camera if a biologist is not online.


Have you thought about putting the cameras in exotic places around the world so people could virtually visit?

That is one of the primary motivations for this project. It's this idea of telepresence where you cannot be there physically, but you can present a remote environment. This is one area we're looking at - how to increase your sense of being there without actually being there.

In the future, we hope users can access the system through their cell phones - a ubiquitous telepresence. Bandwidth is one of the key issues in deploying these systems. Also, there is the power problem when deploying these in very remote places. You have to make sure you have a constant power supply

Chad Vander Veen  |  Editor, FutureStructure

Chad Vander Veen is the editor of