Keeping electronic tabs on wildlife
A small Havelock North company is making a big name for itself producing electronic tracking equipment for use on wildlife, humans, oceanographic cables and for search and rescue.
Sirtrack Ltd was formed as a subsidiary company of environmental Crown Research Institute Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research in June, to capitalise on its international success.
The Minister of Crown Research Institutes, Simon Upton, recently opened a new building for Sirtrack in Havelock North.
Business manager and ecologist Dave Ward was involved in tracking possums in the late 1960s but 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 more than 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 hand-held antennae, to locating seismic cables in the ocean by satellite.
The small 2 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 cannot 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 electronics companies. Sirtrack also manufactures its own hand-held and stationary antennae which have been used in a diverse range of habitats, from tropical rain forests to the harsh Antarctic environment where they are used to track 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 past 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 people and has saved lives. Sirtrack hopes to expand into devices for the elderly and intellectually handicapped.
Photo caption – A researcher uses a Sirtrack receiver