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We may have found yet another use for fibre: finding out where your 1.4 billion insect companions are

Despite the slowdown of the Lockdown years, right now, we think there’s about 5 billion kilometres of lit fibre out there, including that 28,000-kilometre-long optical fibre connection line called FLAG.

We may have found yet another use for fibre: finding out where your 1.4 billion insect companions are
Written by
Guy Redmill
Published on
16 Jan 2024

Humming, clicking and flapping their little wings over all that network is the 10 quintillions (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) of insects in the world—which works out, as you doubtless instinctively intuited, as 1.4 billion per human being. What links the two?

The answer, surprisingly enough, is that we are starting to get super-reliable data about all that biomass from the former. It’s another variation of the power of distributed acoustic sensing, or DAS.

So far, DAS has meant scientists playing with cable to pick up tiny perturbations in that light caused by seismic activity or other ambient sounds. In 2021, researchers heard something new: the noise of cicadas— which, as WIRED wrote last year, could lead to powerful new ways of monitoring insects.

Why would such a thing be desirable? In a time when we’re very concerned about insect decline, any insight we could glean about what real population sizes are and what insects are where would be really useful. And if DAS works, then we could have just been gifted with a cheap but highly accurate way of monitoring them in real time remotely. Even better, we could get this from a single cable that can cover potentially many kilometres recorded by a single device.

It turns out that cicadas are the loudest insects on the planet, so maybe we shouldn't be so surprised. But, as the article also noted, all sorts of other six-legged species make a lot of noise, like crickets and grasshoppers. So, we could be on the verge of something really big here in terms of giving us the information we’ll need to track insect populations – and maybe help conserve those that are valuable, while protecting against emerging threats from those that can wreak agricultural devastation.

What the tech is doesn’t matter. What does is the larger global benefit

DAS and cicadas are just one face of this. What we really need is lots of use of advanced connectivity in innovative ways to capture as much as we can about what’s really going on in the biosphere.

So, we’re very proud of the work that our client and friends over at Telecom26 are achieving through the use of its global data roaming services that enable accurate tracking of birds and animals – collecting data that can help track migration and identify problematic areas where interventions might be required.

That’s important, because while action can be taken at the beginning and endpoints of the migration in question, the areas and stopping off points in-between can be equally important, if we’re to ensure ongoing success. Intercontinental migrations are dependent on the places where animals rest – be they butterflies (many insects have impressively intercontinental migration paths) or birds – so, if populations seem to be declining in the winter or summer endpoints, it may be that we need to take action at these temporary but vital locations.

Additionally, it’s helping an environmental technology organisation called Stream Ocean, which is all about aiding the planet’s coral reefs and the fishes, plants and other marine life that rely on them. Telecom26 provides global SIM cards that enable data connectivity for real-time information to be collected from remote monitoring sites, across any available network.

Similarly, the company is also very active in combining GPS tracking and cellular connectivity to help authorities track migratory bird patterns—a solution that avoids problems in areas of sparce cell tower coverage. In such situations, data is stored on a tracking device attached to the bird, but will only transmit when the SIM attaches to a cell tower when one is next encountered.

But, with single-operator SIMs, that can lead to unexpectedly high bills, because migratory routes (obviously) can pass through some very remote regions – so, controlling costs when you have no idea when (or to through which operator) the tracker might next be able to upload data is essential for supporting valuable research programmes with often limited funding. That’s what Telecom26 does, providing another boost to the cash-strapped research sector.

As we start 2024, use cases of fibre, GPS and other modern connectivity can inspire us all to look in our own work to see what our solutions could do to do similar helpful things. How can we repurpose communications assets to help gather data and obtain insights that might help conserve vulnerable species – and protect our crops from unwanted invasions?

Let’s put our thinking caps on… or should that be our thinking acoustic frequency strain signals?

So long as whatever we use ends up helping the environment, we don’t think the planet will care.

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