[Narrator] At Cornell University and its Lab of Ornithology, a collaborative team of scientists and engineers has come together to create something new and groundbreaking: a lab on a bird. Lab on a bird is a state-of-the-art backpack that can track a bird’s metabolism even while in flight. Birds can do astounding things. Some of their non-stop migratory flights surpass what even the most sophisticated aircraft can accomplish. — [Dr. Winkler] They are capable of incredible feats of endurance. Bar-tailed Godwit that are flying across the Pacific, flying steadily and strong for eight days or nine days. — [Narrator] How do they do it? Scientists are itching to find out. But how do you put a lab on a bird? [The Cornell Lab of Ornithology presents:] [LAB-on-a-BIRD] — [Dr. Erickson] Looking very good guys. — [Dr. Winkler] We think about, you know, marathon runners and what’s that five hours, four hours, and, and to think of running you know for, for two or three days straight, [Dr. David W. Winkler, Professor of Biology, Cornell University] it’s probably a comparable level of exercise, and it’s pretty phenomenal when you start thinking about it. So we’re, we still have a lot to learn about the way that the kind of, the machine, of a flying bird, how it works, how the physiology has been tuned to allow them to constantly be replenishing their energy reserves and burning up the reserves as they’re flying, and at the same time worrying about water loss and water balance, and worrying about their temperature. So a flying bird, especially a flying bird through a changing aerial environment, is a very complicated system. — [Dr. David Erickson, Professor of Engineering, Cornell University] We have the ornithology group led by David Winkler and sort of handling the bird science, and you know managing the intel us and what the right information is present, Garcia sort of handling the electronics and the energy harvesting and so forth. What my lab is doing is is building the sensors that allow one to, you know, again understand what’s going on inside the bird. — [Dr. Ephrahim Garcia, Professor of Engineering, Cornell University] So what powers this thing really? Birdseed. [What does it look like?] — [Narrator] Here’s what the backpack will look like. — [Dr. Erickson] It looks very much like a tiny backpack that the bird wears. There is a small box that contains the electronics, and those electronics are things that allow us to communicate with the outside world. You can upload and download information, temperature, day light, etc. Allow us to store energy and harvest energy from the bird’s motion, and also allow us to run the sensor system. — [Narrator] Nanotechnology allows a needle type sensor to measure metabolites of the bird. — [Dr. Erickson] The actual sensor itself looks very much like a needle. The tip of that has types of chemicals on it that when they come in contact with uric acid they produce a, another type, another chemical, that changes the current going through this needle sensor that we measure that current. — [Narrator] These data are stored on a chip located on the backpack itself. As the birds migrate, scientists aim to download the data remotely. — [Dr. Garcia] The crazy thing about lab on a bird is that the bird helps us in that it flies through a migratory gate. So even though these birds might be scattered throughout the entire northeast, as they go south in the winter, they all channel to very narrow paths and it’s in those paths that we can sort of download the data. So twice a year on this way down, say to the Chesapeake, and on its way back north in the summer we can download information from those birds and capture like a whole year’s worth of behavior that’s stored on flash memory, a good little computer chip. — [Dr. Winkler] The radio tags can download a year’s worth of data in less than a second or a second or two and that’s the great advantage of radio technology, of radio waves, and digital technology that allows us to pump a huge amount of information across a radio beacon in a very short period of time. [How does it run?] — [Narrator] But how does the backpack run? By using the motion of flight, engineers are harnessing energy to power the backpack. — [Dr. Garcia] It’ll look like a thin structure, like a flagpole, if you will, that flexes and in the wind and the piezo electric would be on that flexing part, that would vibrate up and down. It’ll look like a blur to us, but it’ll be moving up and down at the frequency of the wing beats and then from that will be, will be trickle charging a battery from, from that energy. — [Narrator] Challenges remain. Integrating the systems into a working backpack will take more time, but they are well on their way. [What birds are the target species?] — [Dr. Winkler] The target species are really determined by the size of the devices, so we start off working on things like chickens and raptors and waterfowl, and work down through the larger shorebirds. But what we’re really hoping to get to is the small passerines. And the small songbirds are the great majority of bird species in the world, and most songbirds are less than 20 grams in weight. That means that the devices have to be less than a gram in weight, and that’s a pretty severe design limitation right now. It’s one that we bang up against all the time and we’re not there. Most of our devices are in the sort of three to five gram range, three to seven gram range during while we’re developing them. But we see a path pretty clearly to, to make those much smaller. — [Narrator] Migration and birds reminds us of our dynamic earth which we are only beginning to understand. This collaborative research will allow us to unfurl more of the mysteries of what many birds do twice a year, every year. Eventually we hope to have hundreds or even thousands of birds carrying labs, taking science on the wing.

End of transcript

How do some birds manage to make epic migratory flights without stopping to refuel? Scientists are itching to find out, but need help from engineers to answer their questions. Imagine a small backpack, powered by wing beats, capable of measuring the metabolism of birds during flight. The Lab-on-a-Bird Project is an interdisciplinary effort to develop and miniaturize the technology to do just that. Cornell University biologists have teamed up with engineers to create an integrated system that can be mounted on a bird to track metabolism during flight. Join the research team as they develop this cutting-edge technology aimed at answering an age old question.