Animal Vegetable Robot
"Ideas want to be shared. Sharing is baked into their nature. They don’t want to be owned, since ownership diminishes their usefulness. In the end, ideas will move in the direction of maximum sharing regardless of what the law says. And over time the law will codify what technology wants."
"So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I'm left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this."
Andy Weir, The Martian
Virtually Natural: Nodes, Drones, and Apps
As a youngster, I enjoyed exploring novel ways to use technology for new or unusual purposes as part of my nature studies. Having a father who was an electrical engineer and who encouraged these inclinations, it was inevitable that it felt entirely normal for a field biologist to build their equipment to answer questions. By the time I completed my freshman year at Cal Poly Pomona, I had already made a device to measure the speed of sap flow in a tree. Later the same year, I designed and built an instrument to measure the electrical signals produced by South American Electric Knife Fishes, which aided in their study at our field sites in Venezuela.
I would regularly put field biologists together with teams that included computer science and engineers during my career. The questions that field biologists could ask were improved when thinking about possible new tools and techniques. At the same time, our engineering colleagues appreciated taking on the novel problems we faced because these were inherently more challenging and thought-provoking. Inevitably these collaborations resulted in new ways of answering questions well ahead of the mainstream within either domain.
Retirement has fortunately given me far more time to tinker and revisit ideas that I didn't have time for in my capacity of running a busy biological field station. My current interests are divided into themes by their related technologies and methods. For example, I like tinkering with tools for digital measurements of the natural environment, either from the air using drone photography or from the ground using various types of cameras and sensors. It is impossible to be everywhere at once, so any techniques that can automate sampling of an environment might improve how much we know. There is also the holy grail of building a system that might observe the previously unobservable. For example, 1999 was the first year I began installing webcams inside of birdhouses. While I was physically nearby, a viewer on the east coast watched a nest of hatchling Bluebirds via our internet connection when a gopher snake entered the box and began devouring the chicks. The person immediately emailed me to say, "there's a snake in nest box 8." Unfortunately, we received the message too late, and the chicks became lunch, but it led to our review of the scientific literature about bluebird predation by tree-climbing snakes and a new research project about the olfactory prowess of snakes.