From possums to people … electronics firm grows
CROWN Research Institutes Minister Simon Upton has opened a new building for a radio tracking company, Sirtrack, which has its roots in a possum tracking project.
The small Havelock North business produces electronic tracking equipment for use on wildlife, humans, oceanographic cables, and for search and rescue. Sirtrack was formed as a subsidiary company of environmental Crown Research Institute Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research in June 1993 to capitalise on its international success.
Business manager and ecologist Dave Ward was involved in tracking possums in the late 1960s but he never expected the radio tracking venture would grow so large.
“When we first started using radio tracking equipment there was no commercial aspect to it. It was not very high-tech.”
New Zealand scientists have been at the forefront of research into wildlife ecology and endangered species, but many were annoyed with the high cost of poor quality overseas transmitters. In 1985 Ward and other DSIR scientists designed a transmitter that was more efficient than available overseas models.
In 1987 Sirtrack became a commercial unit using the expertise in design combined with the scientists’ knowledge of field applications. Endangered native birds, bats and insects as well as pests, such as possums and feral cats, have been tracked using Sirtrack equipment. The result has been one of the most reliable tracking devices in the world, used on over 100 species. Captured animals are tagged with transmitters and give off a pulse which can be detected and located accurately using regular signals.
Since then, Sirtrack has expanded its applications from tracking animals and birds with handheld antennae to seismic cables in the ocean by satellite.
The small two gram transmitters weigh less than 5% of the animal’s body weight and have been adapted for use on kiwis, wetas, crocodiles and fish so they can’t be damaged and they don’t alter the animal’s behaviour. Each transmitter is manufactured to the specifications of the client using hybrid film to achieve lightweight reliability.
Ward says their knowledge of animal behaviour and rigorous testing gives them the edge over other electronic companies. Sirtrack also manufactures its own handheld and stationary antennae which have been used in a diverse range of habitats from tropical rain forests to the harsh Antarctic environment tracking Adelie penguins.
As well as locating tagged animals, sensors can monitor their behaviour, activity, posture, temperature, whether they are alive or dead and even the sounds they make.
Over the last eight years Sirtrack has expanded into non-ecological areas with Minder emergency beacons for personal use in rugged conditions. With an Australian company Argos it has developed Prestel (Pressure Release Satellite Transmitter for Emergency Location) to find sunken seismic steamers used in surveying the seabed.
Electronics expert Kevin Lay is working on new products to monitor water movements, oceanographic equipment, and oil tankers. Sirtrack has five full-time staff and three part-timers who package transmitters from their Havelock North homes and workshops.
As well as tracking animals, the equipment is used to locate missing poeple [people] and has saved lives. Sirtrack hopes to expand into devices for the elderly and intellectually handicapped.
Photo caption – A transmitter on a giant Weta. (Photo courtesy of Victoria University, Wellington.)
Photo caption – A radio-tagged juvenile possum.