Technology to the aid of nature

Last Updated: Wed, Aug 31, 2011 19:31 hrs

A few days ago, 250-odd students from Anand Niketan, a higher secondary school in Shilaj on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, were busy fastening radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to saplings. These sixth-standard students plan to monitor the growth of the saplings and, with the help of a dedicated website,, collect information on the height, moisture, soil testing, infection and water pH of the saplings.

The exercise was part of an India China Economic and Cultural Council (ICEC) initiative. As part of the launch of its Gujarat chapter, the council tied up with these school students for a "simple, yet innovative tree-plantation exercise”. “We did not want to celebrate the launch of the Gujarat chapter with just a simple tree-plantation exercise. And, we were working on ways to combine youth and the environment and wanted students to be accountable for the saplings they planted. To make the initiative more innovative, an RFID tag has been attached to each plant with an ID code. This would remotely monitor the health of the plant and send information to the students' mobile phones or email them,” says Jagat Shah, chairman, (Gujarat Chapter), the research and development team of ICEC.

ICEC is actively using WiFi-enabled RFID tags. To begin with, the information would be monitored through a reader, and this would then be sent to students. Each sapling has been assigned a dedicated code and a personalised name. Every three months, a check-up of the plants would be carried out by ICEC and the students. “At the end of the year, a ‘best maintained tree competition’ would be held, and prizes would be given away. If the experiment and the approach succeed, we would carry out 5,000 plantations next year,” adds Shah.

Shah says in the future, ICEC plans to connect these RFID tags to a global positioning system (GPS). “Since connecting these to the GPS technology would cost more, we are looking for sponsors. Once done, we won't have to gather information about the tree through a reader. Rather, the same can be done remotely through the internet," he adds.

Indeed! Technologies, like radio frequency identification (RFID) and global positioning system (GPS), were earlier the bastion of companies. However, now, they are also used to monitor tree plantations and track animals.

RFID tags are small tags that can either be inserted or attached to an object or an animal. The tag transmits data that is read by a reader and then processed, according to the needs of a particular application. The data may provide identification or information on location, or data on the product tagged, such as price, colour and the date of purchase. RFID tags are active and passive. Active tags have their own batteries. Thus, they have a limited shelf life. Passive tags do not have internal power sources and need to come in touch with a reader to read data.

The Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai recently took steps to trace animals efficiently with the use of GPS technology. SGNP installed four camera traps, and plans to increase this by another six in the next few months. It has also installed 12 GPS devices and is planning to procure around 10 personal digital assistants (PDAs) for the forest guards.

Camera traps are systems that can click pictures of animals in the wild automatically, without requiring the presence of an operator. They use infrared sensors and allow the study of animal population and behaviour with minimal disturbance. PDA is a term for any small, mobile hand-held device that provides computing and information storage and retrieval capabilities for personal or professional use.

"The camera traps are used to track the movement of animals and they can also identify new animals that come into the park…The GPS devices would be used to check any illegal encroachment at the national park, while the PDAs would obtain more information about an animal, especially its location on a real-time basis," says SGNP Director Sunil Limaye. He believes such a system is important, especially, during natural calamities like fires or floods, when it becomes essential to locate an area through its latitude and longitude. Limaye, however, says it is too early to assess the results of the new technology.

RFID has been used successfully in tracking animals as well. Maharashtra-based Chitale Dairy has been using RFID to track the health and productivity of buffaloes and cows. The system, developed by the Bombay Veterinary College, connects with mobile phones and sends text messages on the health of the animals. The RFID tags are attached to the ears of each animal, and each animal has a unique number.

With these systems, every time a service provider or a vet visits and examines these animals, the details are updated into the system. This has also helped the firm to collect accurate data on medications, health status, breeding and testing. According to the company, this has helped it increase its yield.

(additional reporting by Shivani Shinde)

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