HB firm keeps tabs on crocs
By Marion Moss
Staff reporter, Hastings
There are crocodiles lazing in the Australian outback rivers, Emperor penguins diving deep in Antarctic waters, albatrosses soaring high in the northern skies and wandering Alzheimer sufferers in New Zealand all with links to a tiny Havelock North company.
Each of them is fitted with a custom-built Sirtrack Electronics radio transmitter, but the reasons they are doing so are extremely diverse.
The crocodiles (all 15 of them) as Earth’s nearest living relative to the dinosaur are having their temperatures monitored by the University of Queensland, as it’s thought the cold-blooded dinosaur may have had some form of temperature control.
Sirtrack has two systems for remote measurement of temperature incorporated into transmitters.
The Emperor penguins are being tracked to their feeding grounds of krill as the Japanese are considering harvesting krill for human consumption and it wanted to know the effect this will have on the penguins’ existence.
The soaring albatrosses’ up-and-down movements as they use the westerly slipstream during migration are being monitored. That knowledge could help to ensure their long-term survival.
During migration through the roaring forties, the birds often dive for fish which has been caught by long-line fishing methods. They become entangled and die.
With sufficient evidence it may be possible to have this form of fishing banned from the area over which the birds migrate.
As for the Alzheimer sufferers the reason is obvious. It makes their lives a whole lot safer and takes some of the worry out the lives of people caring for them.
Out of the DSIR
Sirtrack (Sir from D(SIR) Electronics began operating commercially seven years ago. In June last year it became a limited company – a wholly owned subsidiary of Landcare Research.
Behind it were people who for around 30 years had been making tracking equipment for scientific research of various forms of New Zealand insects, animals and birds.
Kiwi, tui, wood pigeon and feral cats had all been tracked by DSIR researchers with totally one-off, made-on-the-premises transmitters.
(At the moment several giant weta are living with tiny transmitters glued to their backs).
It was therefore a logical step to take when the DSIR was split into State-owned enterprises, that a company be formed to sell this specialty equipment.
Today Sirtrack is one of four of the world’s main players in the design and manufacture of wild-life tracking equipment.
Seven people work at Sirtrack which works something like a cottage industry, according to manager, Dave Ward.
“There is a good skill base in Hawke’s Bay, so instead of us doing everything we contract out specialist jobs, at the same time maintaining quality control here,” he said.
“We design, test and assemble the transmitters. Then in the case of things like collars, or special cases for the transmitters, these are done away from here. For example we have three skilled women in Havelock North packaging many of the transmitters.”
That packaging is often amazing and the result of a great deal of brainstorming by the team at Sirtrack. (Packing means encasing the transmitters in resin coatings).
Take the crocodiles. How on earth do you position a transmitter inside a crocodile and how do you make sure it stays there?
That’s where a background in ecology is an advantage and the fact as part of Landcare, the team has access to an enormous amount of up-to-date scientific literature is also a plus.
It’s therefore known that a crocodile does not chew its food – it has large grinding stones in its stomach which break down the food for digestion.
A transmitter inside a simulated stone would remain in the crocodile forever, providing its “packaging” would stand up to the conditions.
That packaging turned out to be dental acrylic, an inert substance which made a most attractive pale pink crocodile stomach stone.
Then it was simply a matter of putting it inside a pig’s head throwing the head to the crocodile who naturally would wolf it down.
Transmitter in place, the additional temperature measuring device was ready to be monitored.
Then for the Emperor penguins – easy enough to affix a transmitter to the bird, but could the packaging stand up to the water pressure at depths of 800 or so feet?
Only one way to find out – test it. So first build yourself a pressure chamber – all in a day’s work.
Pest control was an area where Sirtrack could be used. Knowing the habits of pests was a first step to doing something about it.
One case in point is the camels of the Australian desert.
Originally introduced to Australia by early settlers as beasts of burden, they escaped and now 80,000 in number having bred very successfully and are consuming the vegetation at an alarming rate.
“It’s similar to the possum in New Zealand,” said Dave.
“Water buffalo are also a problem in Australia.
“One camel or water buffalo bull is fitted with a collar and released away from his herd. He will soon gather a group of animals around him. He can be tracked and his new herd shot. He is a Judas beast and is used again and again.
“The same method is used to control feral goats in New Zealand.”
Sirtrack’s products are being used extensively in Australia, in Malaysia, Japan and Saudi Arabia.
“We actively market in Australia – the rest is word of mouth.” Dave says.
Range of 165km
The range of Sirtrack’s transmitters varies.
“DOC was picking up kea 35 kilometres away in Wanaka. Adelie penguins were being picked up 165 kilometres away at McMurdo Sound.” said Dave.
Battery life is something that is constantly being improved.
“Some batteries will last for five years – which is well beyond the life of the packaging. The usual requirement for a battery life is one to two years,” said Dave.
Dave says they never know quite what they are going to be asked for.
“At the moment we are working at a transmitter that can be put on a whale.”
Another product which Sirtrack has developed along with CLS Argos has been named Prestel.
It is a device for the location of lost seismic streamers.
These are used in oil exploration. They are often around two kilometres long and are used to collect data from the sea floor.
“If these streamers break and sink it represents a loss to the company of a much as $2 million,” said Dave.
“We developed the Prestel to attach to the streamer which senses the water pressure every three seconds. If the pressure exceeds a pre-determined level (indicating that the cable is sinking below its operational depth) the sensor triggers a time delay switch which is adjustable from 0 to 7.5 hours. If the pre-set time delay period still exceeds a pre-determined level the Prestel releases a satellite transmitter package to the surface on a tether, thus marking the position of the cable.
“Argos can output the location of this satellite transmitter package directly to the relevant vessel via the international maritime satellite and the cable recovery can be started promptly.”
Although Sirtrack is not always aware of the outcome of research using their transmitters, they do often hear through scientific journals.
One story they heard was of a python being caught in Northern Queensland because it had a transmitter inside it.
“The python had eaten a tree kangaroo which was wearing a transmitter so to recover the transmitter the python needed surgery.
“They had to take the python all the way to Brisbane to find a vet who was prepared to operate on a python. The operation was a success with both the transmitter and the python surviving.”
Used by people
With the increasing longevity of the human race, Dave sees an area where Sirtrack products will have increasing use.
Already some Alzheimers people in New Zealand wear transmitters, as do some who are intellectually disabled.
These are either worn around the neck or riveted on to the wrist.
“We are working on these becoming even more user-friendly,” Dave said.
He says he sees it likely, as more and more people wear transmitters, the most expensive part of the exercise, the receivers, could be bought by service clubs
Sirtrack does not make receivers but is an agent for them.
They do manufacture on the premises tracking antennas which are being used in a diverse range of habitats, including tropical rain forests and Antarctica. One is a hand-held three element antenna which folds up in seconds.
Others can be mounted on masts, on vehicles and on aircraft.
“Sirtrack is trying to be a one-stop shop.”
So far, they believe they are right on track.
Photo caption – Manager Dave Ward with a crocodile stone in his left hand, a camel collar in his right and behind him, in a picture a kaka with transmitter in place.
Photo caption – Kevin Lay with a selection of transmitters brightly coloured as an aid to visual tracking. Note the tiny white transmitter in his other hand. It weighs two grams.