Tracking funds Sirtrack’s motive
The need to earn part of its research budget is behind the international success of tracking and telemetry company Sirtrack. .
Recently the Havelock North-based group gained further international recognition with a contract to supply tracking devices for reindeer, caribou, moose and wolverines to Norway.
However things weren‘t always that way according to manager Dave Ward.
Sirtrack was originally part of the former DSlR‘s ecology division, involved in wildlife research.
“It was a part-time occupation for two of us and we were working on possums and cats in the Bridge Pa area more than 30 years ago.”
The use of tracking and telemetry technology in New Zealand didn’t really start till the late 1950s.
In effect, when transistors came into being, there was no real demand for radio-tracking devices.
The team faced a problem in 1968 trying to ﬁnd out how possums used native bush.
They tried all sorts of things, even tying twine to the possums tails and letting them run off – a method that is now an established technique called spool-and-line tracking.
Mr Ward said in the end, there was nothing else for it but to start learning about electronics and look at other tracking methods.
“We started off on the wrong foot in that area because the theory was that we should be using low frequency to contain costs and we were working down in the citizen band (CB) frequencies at around 27 megahertz (MHz).
“Those early units were pretty crude. We were trying to seal them using plastic tape and pretty rough glues.
“We were working with loop antennas because the size of the antenna is functional to the wave length you are working on.
“27 megs of wavelength requires an 11 metre antenna which you cannot just attach to an animal so we used a loop system which was pretty crude.
“The advantage of low frequency was that we could bend it around and over obstacles.
“We were very happy with the initial results we got from this marvellous tool which we had never tried before but we were looking for more.”
As the team went onto other animals and wanted greater ranges they found that the Americans had gone from 27 MHz to 150 MHz.
“We approached the Post Office, the then frequency issuing authority, and they gave us a band around 160 MHz.
“This made the aerials shrink, made them much more efﬁcient and now we get line of sight transmission running into kilometres.“ Mr Ward said.
In the l980s panic, the government of the day told the unit it had to earn 20 per cent of its research budget.
Mr Ward said one of the things the unit did was to commercialise what it was doing.
“We went to a marketing course. analysed the possibilities of selling this kind of equipment and went ahead with it.
“For the ﬁrst year or two it kept two of us partly occupied and we certainly didn‘t make a proﬁt.
“The rest of the time we were doing research work but then the business slowly started to expand.
“We were very fortunate to have the mana of the former DSlR behind us when we went public – that really helped us to get launched.
“We were also selling to scientiﬁc colleagues with whom we had been exchanging scientiﬁc data for many years – so that gave us a foot the door.” Mr Ward said.
In 1992 DSlR went through into the Crown Research institute (CRI) structure and the unit was set up as a subsidiary company. Sirtrack Limited of the CRI Landcare Research.
Sirtrack currently employs seven people.
The team designs and supplies radio tracking and telemetry equipment to national and international wildlife research organisations.
In New Zealand, Sirtrack products are used by university scientists, the Department of Conservation and Landcare Research to track native birds, a wide range of animals and insects including the giant weta.
Designed in all shapes and sizes to suit various applications, each unit has an in-built working range of 80 MHz to 2l6 MHz which covers the frequencies used around the world.
The units are powered by either silver oxide button type or lithium vinyl chloride batteries.
A D-size lithium vinyl chloride battery will power a transmitter for around 19 years.
The limitation in battery packs is what the animal can carry.
Components are bought in but each unit is designed from the base up by the Sirtrack team and the applications are limited only by the team’s imagination, Mr Ward said.
“We can add options to a unit to monitor temperature.
“We can programme it to turn itself on and off to conserve battery power – to change pulse rules so we can tell if an animal is standing upright, lying down, ﬂying or feeding ”
“We can monitor heart rates and even listen to background sounds.” Mr Ward said.
In terms of applications. Sirtrack is at the stage of making transmitters for tracking people, pets and property.
“The units are suitable for tracking intellectually handicapped people, suffers [sufferers] of Alzheimers or other forms of dementia who may wander off and can’t ﬁnd their way home.
“We have them on pets, animal traps, equipment like sound systems. cash carrying bags and even a Harley Davidson.” Mr Ward said.
Other applications include satellite tracking of drifting buoys or moored instrument arrays that break loose from the sea bed.
The units also have a mountain radio application where they can be used by people working in mountain or forest areas to provide a location point for recovery or rescue operations.
The units are part of the equipment carried by the Department of Conservation and wildlife staff working in bush areas.
Mr Ward said the team has been asked to look at the area of convicted prisoners being detained at home.
“We haven’t really looked seriously at this application because that technology is already there and available off the shelf.
Units are also designed for implanting into animals such as frogs, fish, reptiles in fact all animals that don‘t have a neck or where a trans-pack can‘t be ﬁtted.
Where to from here?
Mr Ward said there are no big advances in terms of basic technology but there are some efforts towards integrating ground positioning systems (GPS) with very high frequency radio (VHFss) so the animal can relay its position at any time.
Mr Ward said receivers are an expensive part of a tracking operation and Sirtrack is currently designing its own.
“These range in price from $1000 to $4000 for a top of the line tracking receiver. A cheaper scanning receiver will cover the frequencies but they are [end of article]
Photo caption – A giant weta with transmitter attached. Photo: Victoria University