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RFID Tracks Bats at Tel Aviv University Cave Entrance

Researchers at The Bat Lab for Neuro-Ecology are employing UHF RFID technology from Readbee to understand the movements of bats as they enter and leave their colony.
By Claire Swedberg
Aug 10, 2018

Tel Aviv University's Bat Lab for Neuro-Ecology is employing RFID and GPS technologies to understand bat behavior, with an aim toward gaining information that can help it research the human mind. The solution, which tracks the movements of these frenetic winged mammals as they enter and leave a cave, was provided by technology startup Readbee, using readers and multiplexers from Senitron.

The tracking of bats comes with built-in challenges. The animals can weigh an ounce or less, can fly at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour and can change direction mid-flight in the blink of an eye. Tracking them, however, can provide valuable insight into ecological research, says Professor Yossi Yovel. The Bat Lab for Neuro-Ecology is studying the ways in which bats' echolocation technique enables them to perceive and interact with their environment. That matters, the researchers speculate, because the brains of bats are not unlike those of other mammals, including humans. The researchers are studying not only how the bats perform spatial navigation via echolocation, but also their sensory perception, social behavior and decision making.

Yossi Yovel
The researchers have developed a colony in a cave near the university, which bat "volunteers" enter and exit. The team wanted to understand when bats came and went and where they went, so GPS units were attached to backpacks or collars around each animal's neck. The GPS units come with batteries, as well as microphones, to track the conditions around each bat as it moves. That doesn't work on smaller bats, however, since they can only support 10 percent of their weight. The GPS units weigh 4 to 6 grams apiece, and young bats (pups) can weigh as little as 1.5 grams.

In addition, the GPS units are expensive—approximately $500 apiece—and, in many cases, a bat wearing the device may never return to the colony, in which case the unit is lost. As such, only some of the bats are equipped with the GPS devices. The group wanted to be able to track more bats, and to be able to recognize each animal as it entered and left the cave.

To understand when bats come to and go from the caves, the researchers have been using cameras to view the bats at night, when the animals are active. To identify each bat, information was painted on its head, or a collar with its name was attached. When student researchers then viewed the recordings the next day, they had to read the bats' names via the visual indicators. This process was time-consuming and error-prone.

The group had installed LF RFID technology, with tags embedded under the bats' skin, but the read rate wasn't high enough to be of value. "The performance of the system was far from 100 percent," Yovel says, "and it often failed to read tags—for example, of bats flying too fast." That's when the university approached Readbee.

Readbee was launched in 2016 to provide custom UHF RFID solutions in Israel, says the company's founder, Yoni Harris. UHF technology in Israel transmits at 915 to 917 MHz. The company collaborates with Senitron to provide solutions for inventory tracking and other use cases. It began working with Yovel and the university in January of this year, and spent the next six months developing a system that could capture nearly 100 percent of bat tag reads.

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