June 12, 2012, 4:15 PM — GPS systems quickly went from a luxury item to a necessity to a ubiquitous contributor to the geographic ignorance of Americans, many of whom rely on their smartphones' ability to give directions to every place they go to keep from having to learn the way themselves.
That's a problem when GPS is suddenly unavailable. When the battery dies. When you drive under a bridge and the GPS thinks you jumped to the highway above or below. When you go into a tunnel and disappear entirely.
Two biology researchers from Oxford University are trying to remedy that, using GPS technology they adapted to keep track of badgers in suburban wilderness outside the city of Oxford.
Andrew Markham and Niki Trigoni, both post-doctoral researchers and instructors at Oxford's Department of Computer Science drew quite a lot of attention to themselves and to Oxford's suburban badger population with a system designed to monitor what the badgers were up to when they were underground.
Badgers forage and do most other things above ground by themselves, for the most part, but evidently have a rich communal social life underground.
Putting a camera in the burrows would provide a picture of one room, but not a macro picture of what was going on elsewhere.
"It is quite challenging to identify badgers when they are underground," Markham told the BBC last year.
Rather than string cameras throughout the burrows, or string GPS antennas, the research team planted a series of antennas that would project magnetic fields of varying intensity to cover the whole area of the burrows.
Individual badgers got special collars with sensors capable of detecting the fields, tracking their intensity and recording it.
When each badger came aboveground the radio in its collar sync'd with servers attached to the antenna network, giving researchers detailed information about where the badger had been during its time out of sight.
Because they used very low-frequency magnetic fields, the network Markham and Trigoni built was able to penetrate far deeper underground than radio waves – the medium on which GPS depends.
The two found the data they gathered showed not only good badger-tracking capabilities, but also the ability to identify a spot in three dimensions without having to receive signals from three points to calculate location by triangulation.