WATCH: The Robotic Baby Penguin That Spies For Scientists : All Tech Considered The emperor penguins of Antarctica are adorable. They're also pretty skittish when humans come around to collect data. Researchers at the University of Strasbourg have a solution: a penguin rover.
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WATCH: The Robotic Baby Penguin That Spies For Scientists

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WATCH: The Robotic Baby Penguin That Spies For Scientists

WATCH: The Robotic Baby Penguin That Spies For Scientists

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/362377186/362588108" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

The emperor penguins seen in movies like "March Of The Penguins" and "Happy Feet" are elegant. The chicks are adorable. These penguins are also quite shy and skittish around humans. Many tracked penguins have data-collecting devices underneath their skin. Usually, researchers have to get close to them to pick up a signal from the devices, and that freaks the penguins out. Yvon Le Maho, from the University of Strasbourg has been studying penguins for more than 40 years. He tried to tackle the problem.

YVON LE MAHO: I thought maybe we can use rovers.

GRIGSBY BATES: A rover. A remote-controlled wheeled device disguised as a penguin that could infiltrate the colony. Turns out it worked. Le Maho and his team equipped some penguins with heart monitors and saw that when the rovers approached instead of humans, stress levels stayed low.

LE MAHO: When the rover is approaching, the increasing heart rate is about the same that bird has when another penguin is passing by.

GRIGSBY BATES: But the disguise has to be good.

LE MAHO: If you want to confuse the birds with fake penguins, it should be very, very well-designed.

GRIGSBY BATES: Le Maho had designed a fiberglass penguin, but the penguins didn't buy it. To get in, the rover penguin had to really look the part. Turns out, this is a story about scientists and filmmakers joining forces. See, at the same time, a UK-based production company was working on shooting a film using camouflaged cameras to get into penguin colonies.

PHILIP DALTON: It was like a marriage in heaven.

GRIGSBY BATES: Philip Dalton is the producer of the BBC film "Penguins: Spy In The Huddle." He works for John Downer Productions, which specializes in designing spy cams to get unique shots in lots of environments. A team of engineers and model makers work to get the feathers, the coloring, the wheels just right. After a few model tweaks, they made a fluffy baby penguin - a chick cam - and happily, it was accepted into the colony.

DALTON: You get this wonderful perspective, which is very similar to what it must look like if you are a chick yourself.

GRIGSBY BATES: Other penguins even tried to sing to it. Here's a clip from the 2013 miniseries "Spy In The Huddle."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PENGUINS: SPY IN THE HUDDLE")

DAVID TENNANT: (As Narrator) One even tries to take the spy cam under her wing.

GRIGSBY BATES: With this special access, the chick cam got a shot of an emperor penguin laying an egg - a moment that hadn't been captured before - TV gold for sure. But the chick cam also produced some important science.

DALTON: I think in the year that we were there, with over 1,000 hours of footage that we gathered with our penguin cams, that was an equivalent of about, I believe, five years of research.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yvon Le Maho and the scientists at the University of Strasbourg hope that this approach will allow scientists to better track penguins and understand their travel and mating patterns, all without stressing the birds out.

(MUSIC)

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