Stars and Stripes – How birds use magnetic fields could one day help troops navigate without GPS, researchers say

The European robin has a protein in its retinas that is sensitive to Earth’s magnetic field, which helps guide its migration, military-funded research has found. Researchers say the results could one day help soldiers navigate without GPS. (THE AMERICAN ARMY)

U.S. Army-funded research into how birds migrate in winter could one day allow troops to navigate using Earth’s magnetic fields.

The results, announced last week, could lead to a future device for use in combat, when GPS and other navigation tools are turned off.

Researchers analyzed the eyes of the European robin, a species that flies south from the UK and Russia to countries like Spain during the winter, according to a military statement last week.

They recreated the cryptochrome 4 protein, present in the eyes of robins. Scientists wanted to know if the protein allows birds to detect Earth’s magnetic fields for navigation.

“Research shows that the magnetic field changes the cryptochrome protein in measurable ways,” Stephanie McElhinny, of the Army Research Laboratory, told Stars and Stripes in an email.

Scientists are using equipment to measure whether a protein found in European robin eyes is sensitive to Earth's magnetic field, in this undated photo.  Army-funded researchers say the findings could one day help soldiers navigate without GPS.

Scientists are using equipment to measure whether a protein found in European robin eyes is sensitive to Earth’s magnetic field, in this undated photo. Army-funded researchers say the findings could one day help soldiers navigate without GPS. (Stuart Mackenzie / University of Oxford)

It’s likely that other proteins are also involved in helping birds navigate, and these have yet to be discovered, McElhinny said. The magnetic fields used in the labs were also much stronger than normal.

Scientists from the University of Oxford and the University of Oldenburg in Germany conducted the research, which was published this summer in the journal Nature.

Research is still in its early stages, but future troops could benefit as the military seeks ways to navigate where GPS may not be an option.

Simulated war games run by the US military, which rely heavily on network communications and information from GPS satellites, have shown instances where its forces could be scrambled and blinded at the start of a battle.

McElhinny envisions a future navigation device that uses cryptochromic proteins or a recreation of them to measure the strength and direction of magnetic fields.

The troops could verify this information against existing magnetic field maps.

“This research provides an interesting alternative technology for navigation that would rely only on the Earth’s magnetic field,” McElhinny said.

Navigation based on magnetic fields would be more difficult to scramble or tamper with compared to using GPS satellite signals, she added.

Funding for the project comes from the United States Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, the Army Research Laboratory, the Office of Naval Research Global, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.



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JP Laurent

Jp Lawrence reports on the US military in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He served in the United States Army from 2008 to 2017. He graduated from Columbia Journalism School and Bard College and is a first generation immigrant from the Philippines.



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