RFID Digitizes Dinosaur Bone Collection

Published: June 12, 2024
  • Earth Science Foundation turned to technology to advance their fossil recovery operation in South Dakota
  • Using RFID tags, data collection time in the field was reduced by 80 percent and artifact data accuracy was recorded at nearly 100 percent

When fossilized dinosaur specimens were discovered on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the tribe and the dig’s management company Earth Science Foundation (ESF) turned to technology to advance their fossil recovery operation.

Among the 347 discovered ancient artifacts were 70 fossils of an Edmontosaurus annectens, (colloquially known as a duck lizard) that walked the continent between 68 and 66 million years ago.

The RFID-data and GPS-based location of all the fossils is now helping build a digital record of each bone’s identity and details including where they were found and stored, in a cloud-based server.

The ESF team— which led the excavation, documentation and handling of paleontological specimens— chose Berntsen International’s InfraMarker RFID system with HID Global tags, to enhance global Geographic Information System (GIS) provider Esri’s management platform.

Tracking Fossils

Put to use over the summer of 2023, the system improved field workflows by tracking and tracing bones from field to display, while providing dashboards for operations managers and remote stakeholders, said Mike Klonsinski, Berntsen International’s president.

By attaching a passive UHF RFID tag to each artifact and linking it to data in the cloud along with GPS location, the team reduced data collection time in the field by 80 percent and brought artifact data accuracy to nearly 100 percent.

Paper and Pen Tradition

Traditionally paleontological specimens are identified as they’re collected, by individuals handwriting notes on paper. However, once the fossil leaves the field, the notebook is often separated from the specimen and data can get lost.

And, once in storage, the fossils are placed on numbered shelves and tracked with paper spreadsheets, a process that also provides the risk of error or inconsistencies.

The team involved in the Standing Rock dinosaur dig wanted a more reliable and less labor-intensive process. They went to Bernsten as the solution provider to integrate an RFID and GIS based solution.

Leveraging RFID

Berntsen International makes RFID-based solutions for GIS as well as infrastructure marking products for industries like survey, utility and construction. Its InfraMarker solution is in use by municipalities, cemeteries, waste management, and even for specialized applications like Christmas trees and urban tree management, said Kari Campbell, Berntsen’s marketing manager.

“Through our experiences, we’ve recognized that InfraMarker transcends industry boundaries, serving as a versatile asset management application,” Campbell said. So adopting the technology for tracking bones, that are tens of millions of years old, was no great stretch.

The dig site was located in a remote area, 300 miles from Fort Gigs where there was little internet or cellular connectivity and highly valuable fossils being collected. With the dig, each artifact needed to be weighed, documented and moved to warehouse storage in boxes or directly on shelves prior to being permanently transferred to a museum.

How it Works

The solution consisted of Berntsen’s InfraMarker software, RFID readers from HID company Technology Solutions Ltd (TSL), and HID SlimFlex UHF RFID tags with user memory to support InfraMarker’s data sharing structure. The tags are attached to each bagged artifact, or directly zip-tied to larger bones.

The tag was attached to an artifact, using descriptive data  which was entered into  a TSL 2166 handheld reader, running an Esri ArcGIS Survey123 survey data collection app, integrated with InfraMarker RFID software. The data includes fossil location, description and ownership.

The item was linked to the tag’s EPC number as its universal identifier.

Creating a Digital Record for Each Artifact

Each time the specimen is examined or worked with, the system can be used to update the data record of that artifact and where it was last seen. With each interaction, the technician scans the bone’s RFID tag, inputs details about what they are doing with it, adds any information such as new photos, and updates the coordinates for the place where the bone is currently located.

The RFID scan is recorded with a date/time stamp to provide an auditable record and provide a ‘last read’ location of the bone action.

Software offers a dashboard of all the bones found, their location on a map based on where they were found, and where they are now. All RFID interrogation data was collected in the cloud, providing near real-time visibility of bone status by auditors hundreds of miles from the dig site.

Next Phase

The software enabled easy data sharing and auditing of field work by related organizations, in this case, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, added Campbell.

The system was used throughout the summer 2023 and now the next phase includes tagging and tracking 15,000 bones in the Standing Rock Institute of Natural History. This will extend RFID tracking to a second asset class like artifacts.

InfraMarker provides a comprehensive record of the asset’s journey and location throughout its lifecycle. This holistic approach ensures a thorough understanding of the asset’s whereabouts and history, not only for asset management but also decision-making processes, explained Campbell.

Customized Solution

With any such deployment for field work with RFID, one of the key challenges centers around the mapping and logging of the specimens.  With the RFID tagging and InfraMarker solution, these 20 to 30 minute activities were reduced to just two to three minutes, according to ESF’s founder and director Thomas Hebert.

Other challenges included finding a tag that was appropriate for the artifacts. “Different tags are needed for different types of fossils. We solved this by utilizing a few types of tags,” Campbell said.

Working in a location without connectivity was another challenge, but the team operated in offline mode and the data was then automatically updated when connectivity was re-established.

Future Uses of RFID

The fossils that were identified included everything from small two-inch vertebrae to about a 38-inch femur. Additionally, paleontologists found a bottom left mandible with teeth in it.

The fossils are currently stored at various stages of transition. The majority have been relocated to the holding stage, where they await further processing. Subsequently, they may be transferred to the processing stage for cleaning and preparation before display. Throughout this journey, the RFID tags remain affixed to the fossils, ensuring seamless tracking and monitoring as they move between different locations and stages of processing.

Going forward, the InfraMarker system is poised for deployment on similar pre-historic sites, according to Campbell.

“We’re actively exploring opportunities for similar or related projects in various fields such as archaeology, paleontology and beyond,” she said.

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