Bird Tracking Goes High-Tech

19th June 2012

A new type of GPS tracking system, being developed in New Zealand, is set to revolutionise the conservation of native birds and endangered animals.

The University of Otago launched its Next Generation Wildlife Tracking Systems Project in 2009. MSI has contributed $600,000 to research since it was launched and has committed a further $450,000 to it by October 2012.

The project currently focuses on the evaluation of the feeding-foraging patterns of albatross to try to reduce the risks posed to them by commercial fisheries, and on the monitoring of endangered native birds, including kaka, pateke and buff weka following their release into native reserves to rebuild their numbers.

The Otago team has developed two types of state-of-the-art tracking tags so far. The first, called Fix-&-Flick, is a miniaturised GPS receiver (the Fix) coupled with GSM texting capability (the flick), which collects and stores location data from a constellation of satellites, then uses the cell phone network to download this information. The other, FastFix, is a micro-GPS, which weighs less than 5 grams. Both tags weigh much less than traditional tracking units, allowing attachment to smaller bird species. The units can also be attached to birds for multiple breeding seasons over a number of years.

Associate Professor Philip Seddon, one of the University of Otago researchers leading the project, says "Existing radio frequency-based tracking systems are labour intensive and limited by terrain and day-light retrieval of data. Similarly, current GPS tracking units are relatively heavy, costly and have short battery lives, limiting the range of species able to carry them and numbers tracked.

"The technology we are developing will improve the quality of the data collected, leading to more efficient and cost-effective conservation and pest control."

The Otago team has collaborated with a number of organisations, - including the Department of Conservation, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, Ngai Tahu and the Karori and Orokonui Eco-Sanctuaries - on the project.

Auckland company Rakon, - which manufactures crystal oscillators for telecommunications infrastructure, smartphones and GPS devices, - provided the radio frequency modules that provide a bridge between the tracking tags' antennae and their GPS processing units. Some aspects of these modules were also developed with MSI funding.

Graham Ockleston, Rakon's Product Manager - New Technologies, says: "We provided the samples and support in using the modules free of charge, as we wanted to support the educational and conservational nature of the project."

As a result of this relationship. Rakon and the Otago team have started a joint research to further improve Rakon's GPS oscillators.

The FastFix-GPS tags are being further developed and future partnerships are underway to deploy these on small animal species, including stoats and ferrets. Once the next phase of the project is completed, the research programme will be extended to include whales and other endangered marine mammals that cannot be tracked using conventional methods.

The Fix-&-Flick technology has been transferred to the Havelock North-based tracking equipment manufacturer Sirtrack Ltd (now Lotec Wireless Ltd) for commercial development.