Penguin Lifelines

We quite frequently get asked about optimum operating temperatures for the Raspberry Pi – frequently enough that this was a very early addition to our FAQs page back in 2012:

The Raspberry Pi is built from commercial chips which are qualified to different temperature ranges; the LAN9512 is specified by the manufacturers being qualified from 0°C to 70°C, while the AP is qualified from -40°C to 85°C. You may well find that the board will work outside those temperatures, but we’re not qualifying the board itself to these extremes.

And we left it at that. I hadn’t really thought much about extreme environments for a while – but then I bumped into our friend Jonathan Pallant, from Cambridge Consultants, a couple of weeks ago; and he started telling me about the progress of a project he’s been working on with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which pushes the Raspberry Pi’s working temperature down further than any other we’ve seen.

How? By the simple expedient of sticking them on poles in Antarctica for a year, in order to monitor penguins. That means the Pis have to work reliably at temperatures which can consistently be below -42°C  (-45ºF). And they’ve been coping with those temperatures just fine for a year now.

Image: Alasdair Davies, ZSL

The Penguin Lifelines project, headed up by Dr Tom Hart, is a multi-organisation enterprise. ZSL are working with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oxford University, Oceanites, and Stony Brook University to monitor Adelie penguin populations throughout the year, and to find out how external events like weather and disease, and human influences like pollution and fisheries, affect them. The cameras have been in situ since January 2014 (so very nearly a year’s data has been collected and sent back to researchers by the very cold Raspberry Pis). It’s summer in Antarctica right now, but most places where these are installed will still be well below freezing.
Credit: Alasdair Davies, ZSL

Credit: Alasdair Davies, ZSL

The penguins trigger the cameras (there are two in each unit: a regular camera and one with no IR filter for taking pictures in the dark with an infra-red flash – sound familiar?) by moving near them; each unit is equipped with an motion detector. The pictures are then sent to the researchers by the Pi via the Iridium satellite network. Each setup is powered by external lead batteries, which are topped up (when the sun’s out) by solar panels.

Researchers count the penguins from the images, and are able to track when they arrive to breed, and monitor populations. In previous studies, a human would have to go out to the camera installation and pick up the data by hand: networking the cameras, using Raspberry Pis, means that this doesn’t need to happen any more.

There are a few ways in which you can help Penguin Lifelines. The researchers are crowdsourcing some of the work that needs doing in classifying images: the pictures the project is creating need sorting to establish how many adults, chicks and eggs are visible in each.

Orange circles identify adults, green circles chicks, and yellow circles eggs.

Orange circles identify adults, green circles chicks, and yellow circles eggs.

804,303 images have been classified so far, but there are plenty more to help sort.

You can also make a donation. Adopting a colony will help fund the placing of more Raspberry Pi cameras in remote regions to monitor penguin populations.

You can read much more about the project over at the Penguin Lifelines site. And because we think penguins are brilliant, here are a couple more pictures.

Setting up. Credit: Alasdair Davies, ZSL

Setting up. Credit: Alasdair Davies, ZSL

Credit: Alasdair Davies, ZSL

Credit: Alasdair Davies, ZSL


Michael Horne avatar

Love what these guys do for wildlife – I think this is the same rig that is used for rhino poachers in Kenya, in any case certainly looks similar. Brilliant stuff. And penguins rule :-)

Jonathan Pallant avatar

Well spotted!

No physical changes to either the camera or central node were required as we built the kit to meet both ends of the environmental spec from the outset. Al Davies and the gang just had to worry about keeping the batteries topped up. And keeping it all upright in an Antarctic gale…

AndrewS avatar

I guess that can’t be easy in the Antarctic winter, when there’s permanent darkness? Does the setup simply involve having MASSIVE batteries?

At least there’s no worries of overheating ;-)

Liz Upton avatar

Judging by some of the pictures from cameras they used before the Pi came out, a big problem in winter is the way that the cameras get buried in snow!

Ken MacIver avatar

The Raspberry Pingu network perhaps..

I wonder if there is a backup system on the North Pole ready for some interesting snaps this coming Thursday ???

Dougie avatar

I’d love a penguin for Xmas,

but I think a turkey may taste better (less fishy).

Tai Viinikka avatar

Great work and congrats to those who worked on this application. I feel like that took some gonads, given that the Foundation couldn’t guarantee it was going to work for you.

But now look here:

In the eons since you launched, it seems your supplier has qualified that component down to -40 C! or maybe they saw this post and just took advantage. :) Either way, nicely done all.

Andy avatar

LAN Chip available to -40? Good news, that!
I’m creating a data logger (commercial), and we did look at a Pi, but IIRC the LAN chip was the only part not specced to -40. As our stuff will be based in Arctic conditions, it ruled it out. Maybe if the Pi can be retrofitted with an industrial version…or is the Pi Module industrially-rated? Better have a look…

Peter Green avatar

It looks like the lan951x series comes in both commerical and industrial variants with only the industrial one being rated to -40. Given that the Pi is trying to be cheap it will almost certainly be built with the “commerical” variant.

Though I expect the only real differences are the pricetag and possiblly the amount of testing.

Jim Manley avatar

As the astute reader may recall, I am a volunteer animal caretaker and visitor guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and my charges have included both South African blackfooted penguins and their very similar but slightly smaller cross-Atlantic East Coast South American cousins, Magellanic penguins. Having had close contact with them (they seem to think my ample-for-now beard is prospective nesting material!), penguins form an immediate opinion of you at first contact that then lasts a lifetime. Practicing binary math, they either decide you’re the best thing since sliced sardines, or you’re Beelzebub, Denizen of the Realm of the Prince of Darkness, Himself. When I let my guard down momentarily, my worst nemesis hopped onto my outstretched legs while I was wearing nylon coveralls and sitting on a low stool for a feeding. He hopped up further to wind up on my lap and when I realized he was after my plumage, I instinctively leaned back – biiiig mistake! He was emboldened to begin waddling up my belly and as he reached my chest I realized that I was in extremis. I began straightening back up and he quickly got the message that I was an alpha male who was not about to take being plucked bare lying down! We have to ensure that we don’t loom over the birds lest they be frightened into cardiac arrest in the worst-case situation, so I had to gradually keep getting up to get him to hop off without being too scary. He still nips at the hook-and-loop fuzz on the leg cuffs of my coveralls to remind me of his “affection” and he’s always getting in the way when I’m trying to spray away the latest layer of penguin poop off of the artificial rocks in their exhibit area before it hardens into a guano version of concrete, which only takes a day if you don’t scrub and spray a couple of times a day.

I’m working on a similar image and video collection and RF transmitter tag direction-finding system to be mounted on utility poles overlooking the coastal areas here so that we can better monitor our California sea otters that remain endangered from parasites, pollution, and predators that mistake their mostly fur-and-bones bodies for blubber-rich harbor seals. A sea otter was recently found shot near a marina where fishing boats moor and how anyone could consider a 60-pound otter that eats 15 pounds of mostly crabs, abalone, mussels, and clams a day a threat to their catch of fish isn’t much of a fisherman.

Skyler avatar

This is good news for the Pi-powered rocket we’re working on. It’s cold in space.

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