Partners in the Sky: Airbus leverages its aerospace expertise to further environmental conservation

Marking another step in its ongoing commitment to the environment, Airbus is taking a leading role in the newly-announced Partners in the Sky programme – which brings together scientific expertise of the Smithsonian Institution with aviation and aerospace technology to unlock the mysteries of animal migration.

6 December 2013 Feature story

This major collaboration was launched today during a standing-room-only event held at a highly appropriate location: the Smithsonian National Zoological Park’s Elephant Community Center in Washington, D.C., with three of the facility’s well-known resident pachyderms – Ambika, Kandula and Shanthi – in attendance as the programme was unveiled. 

Partners in the Sky aims to create a first-of-its-kind global animal tracking system to monitor the migratory activity of animals, which is essential to maintaining ecosystems and ultimately a healthy planet. Specifically, the programme could discover unknown migration routes, help better understand the spread of infectious diseases, combat poaching, save species from extinction and other major achievements. 

Such a comprehensive tracking programme that can be shared across the conservation community has enormous potential, though technological hurdles must first be overcome. While migrations are common among more than 6,000 animal species, more than 90 per cent of the globe’s wildlife is too small to track; and for larger species like elephants, conservation-tracking technologies are prohibitively expensive, have high failure rates and are limited in their range and resolution.

Airbus Americas Chairman Allan McArtor learned of the technical challenges facing this effort and knew industry could help. “Aviation and aerospace companies deploy similar technologies and programmes every day – whether in satellite navigation, communication and surveillance or in high-fidelity tracking,” said McArtor, who provided comments during the launch event. “No industry is better positioned to help the public sector transform wildlife conservation and make a difference in the health of our planet.”

Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute have identified specifications for the ideal tracking system, and in coordination with the Partners in the Sky consortium, charted a course of action that includes four key parts: miniaturize tracking devices to 1 gram or less; increase data transmission and make tracking devices more affordable and reliable; use aircraft equipped with antennae and receivers to collect data from transmitter-tagged wildlife; and integrate tracking with environmental satellite data, to help predict why, how, where and when animals move. Experts from across the collaboration were on hand at the launch event to detail these four components and the key advances they can bring.

Joining Airbus in Partners in the Sky are: Intel, Iridium Communications Inc., Joubeh, Lockheed Martin, Michael Goldfarb Associates, Raytheon, Rockwell Collins and United Airlines. Pennsylvania State University’s Applied Research Laboratory became a member thanks to a donation from the Rick Bowe and Karen Nemeth Charitable Fund.

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