UnderTracker: Underground Animal Tracking and Mapping in 3D

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Computer Science


Wildlife tracking using wireless sensor networks has garnered a great deal of attention and research, since the seminal ZebraNet project monitored zebras with mobile nodes in 2002. However, research to date has concentrated on monitoring animals when they are above ground. It is currently impossible to automatically monitor animals whilst they are underground. The main reason for this is that radio waves are severely attenuated by layers of soil, to the point of being unusable. There is a strong need for a system that can localize burrowing animals when they are within their dens or tunnels, in order to better understand their behaviour and habits. A prime example of this is the European badger - badgers are a protected species in the UK, yet are subject to widespread culling due to their possible link to bovine TB. By monitoring internal sett conditions and animal interactions underground, a better understanding of infection could potentially be obtained. To tackle these issues, I propose the use of low frequency magnetic fields (i.e. the principle of magneto-induction, MI), which are able to penetrate soil without attenuation, to provide ultra-low power three dimensional localization of wild animals within their burrows. Data from tracking collars will be forwarded by conventional high frequency radio links when the animal is above ground, meaning that the animal does not need to be recaptured to obtain the stored information. By mapping animal movements over time, the subterranean tunnel architecture itself will be determined, something which can currently only be obtained, destructively, through excavation. Sensors within the tunnel will monitor gas concentrations and temperature gradients, which will help to explain how animals achieve suitable ventilation underground and maintain body temperature. To investigate animal behaviour, tracking collars will be equipped with miniature sensors, such as accelerometers and magnetometers, which will record motion and energetics. To reduce data volumes, tracking collars will automatically characterize animal behaviour primitives, such as walking or sleeping. To further increase the rate of learning this information, tracking collars will share motion features, forming a distributed knowledge base. Thus, this research proposes a broad animal monitoring and tracking system, which will reveal a complete picture of animal life underground, for the first time.To achieve the goals of the research a close collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford will be formed. They will guide the design of the tracking collars and attach them to suitable badgers during regular research undertaken in Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire. Their expertise is also vital in framing the research to address biologically relevant questions. Data from this system will also be used by researchers in the University of Cambridge Computing Laboratory, to investigate social contact networks. Ultimately this insight into the detail of badgers' lives will help to unravel the true extent with which they interact with each other, and shed light not just on the behavioural-ecology of this species, but investigate their social systems and address important questions concerning the transmission of disease.

Planned Impact

This work has the potential for significant impact within the broad zoological context. This ranges from understanding how animals behave and interact underground to deriving models of disease transfer. The main beneficiary is the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, who are extremely interested in the outcomes of this research, as there is no comparable method of obtaining animal location underground. Furthermore, as the role of badgers in the spread of bovine TB is a contentious issue, this research could shed light on mechanisms of disease transfer underground and could potentially suggest scientifically guided solutions for control. This is especially important due to recent rises in the incidence of bovine TB in cattle and planned future culls. Thus, the data gathered by this system could be used by policy makers to determine the best strategy to control bovine TB. In terms of general conservation, the public are extremely interested in animal behaviour. This is demonstrated by the high viewerships of programs such as Springwatch on the BBC. This technology could be used to show how animals interact underground in a non-invasive manner. Raising awareness of animals is important from a conservation perspective. To reach the general public, a website will be constructed which will explain how the technology works and what results it has obtained. To further engage people, social networking tools such as Twitter and facebook will be used so that people can follow the activities of badgers and receive automatic, regular updates from the tracking system. By making animals part of the pervasive digital fabric of the internet, it will be a simple, yet effective way, of reaching a large number of people across the world. Although the primary channel for dissemination is through online tools, other conventional media such as newspapers, television and magazines will also be targeted. Although the principal aims of this proposal are on tracking animals underground, the basic technology could be used in a number of other areas. One such example is mine rescue. This would need to work over a much larger area, but the ability to pinpoint a miner's location in an emergency scenario (e.g. due to a rockburst) has the potential to save lives. Another area where this technology could be used is in precision agriculture. This requires sensor devices to be buried within fields where they will not be ploughed up or destroyed by farming implements. The investigations into communication through soil could easily be extended to this area. This has the potential to optimize fertilizer delivery or irrigation, which is vitally important in a resource constrained world. To this end, if the technology is demonstrated to be useful in these arenas, steps will be taken to form collaborations or commercialize sensor devices.


10 25 50
Description The world's first system for 3-D underground tracking of animals has been developed. It achieves an accuracy of under 30 cm RMS over the extent of a typical badger sett.
Exploitation Route Magneto-inductive positioning has unique advantages in terms of its ability to penetrate dense media. It can act as a (short-range) alternative to GPS in environments where radio signals are blocked. MI does not suffer from multi-path or fading. This research has great potential in civil engineering, mining, indoor location and oil/gas industries.
Sectors Aerospace

Defence and Marine


Food and Drink


URL http://amarkham.com/?page_id=9
Description The key impact of this research is providing detailed information on the interactions of underground animals, in particular badgers. This could have economic importance in terms of helping to understand how diseases like bTB could spread. It has led to three worldwide patent applications, with potential use in safety, such as in underground mining or railways. It has also led to a collaboration with an industrial partner who is interested in commercializing this technology for wildlife tracking.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Construction,Electronics
Impact Types Societal


Description Tracksafe
Amount £991,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 102033 
Organisation Innovate UK 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2015 
End 03/2018
Title Low power animal tracking tags 
Description As part of the Undertracker project, an innovative low-power animal tracking sensor was designed. This combined advances in low power movement and MI sensors with optimized embedded software to acquire, store and wirelessly communicate information. These tracking tags are low power, battery powered units that provide continuous monitoring of an animal's activity (e.g. from an accelerometer) and its location (e.g. from RFID or custom MI). 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Collaborations with a number of researchers at Oxford and beyond (e.g. University of Hull, Max Plank Institute) were made possible by these devices. A further generation is under development. 
URL http://innovation.ox.ac.uk/licence-details/adaptive-animal-tracking-tags/
Description A system for providing locality information to a user is disclosed. The system comprises at least one magnetic field beacon. Each beacon comprises means for generating a magnetic field encoded with information associated with the beacon. A communication device is provided that comprises means for detecting the encoded magnetic field emitted by the beacon and means for extracting the information encoded in the detected magnetic field. 
IP Reference WO2012120302 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2012
Licensed No
Impact None as yet
Description 'Cyber egg' used to record Abbotsbury Swannery swans 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Scientists have placed a computerised egg among a group of swans in Dorset.

The silicon-filled "cyber egg" will use mobile phone-style technology to measure movements of the birds at Abbotsbury Swannery.



A number of requests were made for information and to use the technology
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-19258974
Description Oxford Sparks Animation (public engagement) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Animation was produced which encapsulated close to a decade of my work in magneto-inductive positioning. This was accomplished through an open competition in the University of Oxford to be awarded an animation package (approx value £15k). This was released in Sep 2019 and to date (Mar 2020) has been viewed at least 5000 times with global reach. It was also promoted on the university twitter account. Further requests for information from general public/media have followed.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.oxfordsparks.ox.ac.uk/content/positioning-challenging-environments