United Airlines is working with the Smithsonian on a conservation project that will tag and track the smaller members of the animal kingdom. More specifically, the project will use radio receivers mounted on planes to create a low-altitude network of vanishing species like the monarch butterfly. All while you enjoy your complimentary beverage.
The project is called Partners in the Sky, and it kind of gives you that oh-wow-tech-will-save-the-world kind of feeling. The basic concept of tracking endangered species is hardly new. For years, we've been catching large animals like moose and strapping GPS-enabled collars to them. GPS chips are way, way too big for butterflies, though. That's why Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute worked with companies like Airbus to develop new tags that use simple VHF radio technology and weigh just 0.15 grams.
The new United involvement is particularly exciting, because now the project has a reliable and relatively seamless method for collecting data. The chips are low cost, meaning researchers can start tagging everything from bald eagles to dragonflies, and United will start tracking the frequencies with receivers mounted on some of its 5300 daily flights.
Again, it makes such good sense because it requires so little effort. "Aviation and aerospace companies deploy similar technologies and programs every day — whether in satellite navigation, communication and surveillance or in high-fidelity tracking," said Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus Americas who provides planes to United. "No industry is better positioned to help the public sector transform wildlife conservation and make a difference in the health of our planet."