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Small unmanned aircraft systems in wildlife research – pros and cons

October 18th, 2016

Small unmanned aircraft systems are what people mistakenly refer to as drones. A drone is a male bee and of little use in helping you gather your field data….unless you study bees maybe.

These aircraft systems seem to mesmerize some folks as if they are the end all and be all, the solution to all of our problems associated with the high cost of manned aircraft flights. In this post I intend to shine a light on a few basic pros and cons associated with sUAS.

The reason that I want to address this now is that Telemetry Solutions has a GPS wildlife tracking system that is compatible with sUAS usage. For many there could be a real advantage to using a sUAS especially with small animals that are low to the ground and wearing a GPS collar. Our new product has a very long range autonomous data transmission feature to a base station. The base station collects data without a human operator and weighs less than 100 grams. Many sUAS systems can lift the base station and carry it for a relatively extended period of time. But how, exactly, can this help you? Since the data transmission method is by radio, a line of sight from the GPS device to the base station must be established in order for a data transmission to occur successfully. The simplest use for the sUAS is to lift the base station to gain elevation over the subject carrying the GPS device. In other words it can lift the base station high into the sky to establish that line of sight without you having to hike all the way to the animal. With a proper line of sight and all conditions optimized for data transmission the maximum download range is 25 kilometers. The base station downloads data from all of your GPS devices within range and it does so automatically. Even very small animals can carry the GPS device associated with this download range. So the first advantage is that a sUAS can gain height over the animal and help to maximize data download range to save you time and effort in the field.

However, in The United States, the Federal Aviation Administration has created rules governing the commercial use of sUAS. You may argue that wildlife research is not commercial. The opposing categorization (from the FAA point of view) is someone who is flying a sUAS as a hobby.

Two of the most obvious limitations created by The FAA rules are that you may operate the sUAS only within visual line of sight and you may not operate it more than 400 feet above the ground or 400 feet above the platform from which you are operating. In addition you must obtain a remote pilot airman certificate with a sUAS rating or be directly supervised by a person who holds the certificate. Within class B,C,D and E airspace you must notify ATC (Air Traffic Control) about your activity. All of this and you may not operation in a TFR area (Temporary Flight Restriction) and these can pop up anytime at anyplace so you need to be aware of them. A TFR can be created due to a wildfire or security event or other special situations. You may not fly the sUAS over a person that is not associated with your task.

On top of all of this you have to learn how to operate a sUAS and it is easier for some than others. Don’t expect to just grab and go and not lose your sUAS. In the sUAS world there is a saying that you should not “purchase a system that you are not willing to watch fly away never to be seen again.” In my personal experience youth plays some role in this ability. On my first day as an operator, my sUAS spent the night in a pine tree….high up in a pine tree. Much younger folks in my office took to it like a duck to water.

There is another option. That is to hire a company that has the sUAS and certifcations and will fly their sUAS for you at your sight. However expect to pay a lot of money for this service, it would probably cost less to just hire a manned aircraft. Of course with a sUAS no one is risking their life, that is a huge advantage.

In 2017 we expect that our systems will begin to be used with sUAS.


Tracking via………..internet?

December 18th, 2015

Last week we shipped a few tracking devices to Australia for crocodiles. They report position from any place on planet…… email. They have arrived in Australia and started taking positions from there. I just received an email that stated, “This position is 12,635 km from previous position” How scary is that? Anyone can be tracked without them knowing. Once saw a shipment in a FedEx truck…….saw his exact route before he delivered the package to my client. Freaky

When purchasing GPS tracking equipment for wildlife, consider this

April 3rd, 2015

If you are a first time buyer in the market for GPS tracking devices for wildlife research you might have discovered by now that you have many choices when it comes to suppliers. There is no shortage of supply, new companies appear and old ones go away, this market is in a state of flux. That should be one of your primary concerns, how long has a company been in business? Will they be there when you need them?

You may also want to consider the location of the company you choose. While it is not too difficult to transport equipment over vast distances what about customer support? Will you be getting customer support in a timely manner or is your vendor just wrapping up their work day when you are just starting yours, or vice versa?

Think about whether or not you are willing to use GPS tracking devices that are off the shelf with little choice of nuance or are they custom made for the species you are working with?

Ask how long the product has been in production. This is a double edged sword. While it is desirable to have a long history of successful field work done with a particular type of GPS collar or GPS backpack that may mean that the technology has been surpassed by something better. On the other hand, if a wildlife GPS design is brand new will you be buying a reliable product? Can the vendor supply you with references who you can speak to before buying?

Is there enough information about the product available online? Are there video tutorials and FAQs so that you can help yourself when you run into the inevitable difficulty?

Notice that I have not mentioned price. From where I am sitting, this should be low on the list of considerations. Of course you have to be able to afford the equipment but what is the point of buying something for a low price if it isn’t the right tracking device? And don’t forget when thinking about price that most manufacturers do not offer refurbishment services for small GPS collars and GPS backpacks. Refurbishment at Telemetry Solutions is offered on everything and at a fraction of the cost of a new device. Therefore you can fairly amortize the equipment cost over multiple years.


Turning on a dime

March 6th, 2015

I don’t know why it happened but I use a lot of expressions in my speech. I think I learned them from my father and I think he picked them up from my grandfather or even my great-grandfather. This has caused some confusion over the years because people my own age don’t know what I’m talking about when I use these expressions which I do every day. So I have to educate them. The other difficulty is that they are American expressions. Anyone who didn’t grow up here stands an even smaller chance of understanding. Two of my personal favorites are “don’t take any wooden nickels” and “I have more problems than Carter has little white liver pills.” If you have any interest in knowing what those mean it should be easy to find on the web. I will spare you the explanation here.

Spending time in east Africa in the mid-eighties and living in a bush camp without electricity working for a British boss, much of my time after dark was spent reading with a flashlight. I read his books which were mostly written by British authors. So I started picking up British expressions and I can tell you that those are not well understood in California either. I’ve even met some British people who didn’t understand them.

But the title of this blog had to be “Turning on a Dime” because it perfectly describes what we just did in our engineering department in December and I can tell you it was a beautiful thing.

For the first half of 2014 we were working on developing a very,very lightweight GPS with remote download. We actually produced it at 0.4 grams. Pretty incredible. We offered it at fairly low price point because it had limited usefulness and limited features compared to our other GPS products. We brought it to market and learned something very interesting. After hearing this from potential customers for years “We need a lighter GPS unit” the truth was that they didn’t really need a lighter GPS unit. There was almost zero interest. In other words, no one bought it.

But the project spawned an idea. Why waste all of that engineering effort? Let’s turn on a dime and create something really cool from this project. I get very excited about new projects because I can see the potential usefulness for customers and I thought I was really on to something big. I even managed to get the engineer excited about it. I decided to use the basic features that we had already developed but to add to that some really desirable attributes to make something with mass appeal. I gave permission to bring the weight up to 3 grams. We added a 500,000 position memory, a better GPS antenna as well as a powerful accelerometer that will allow the device to turn on and off depending upon the behavior of the study animal. And we created the circuit on a flex/rigid hybrid circuit board. That allows us to curve the circuit or even bend it 90° in two places so that it will be more compact in the final application. In other words, we can curve it around a portion of a small collar rather than have it just a long, flat, rigid thing that creates a less than compact final product. But we’re not loading any components on the flexible part of the circuit board so reliability will not be affected. And of course we retained the automatic (no human required) wireless data download feature.

This project is coming to a close now and the product is about to be released for sale. But it spawned another new project of which we are in the planning stage now. We are a small company and making decisions is fast. Changing course is extremely fast too when that’s what we decide to do. Our hope is that ultimately this capability to act and react quickly benefits you, the wildlife biologist customer.


The beauty of advancing technology – reducing your cost for micro GPS trackers

May 7th, 2014

Making custom GPS tracking devices for wildlife and industrial applications keeps us busy and interested.  2014 has already been very busy and full of new technologies. We added a new micro GPS device to our product line this year and while this isn’t really new for us, we had one 4 years ago, this one has more features including remote data download and it only weighs 0.4 grams without the battery.  We designed this using new technologies and it allowed us to offer it at a much lower than normal cost.

But there is another technology we added this year that is helping us to cut costs and we are passing that on to our customers.  It’s not exactly a new technology but until recently we didn’t think it was practical for us.  I’m talking about 3D printing.  I have been considering purchasing a 3D printer for about the last 3 years but couldn’t pull the trigger because they were a bit too cumbersome, using strange materials and requiring a lot of cleaning after each job.

But in December while shopping with Naho and finding myself just a touch bored I wandered into a Microsoft store.  This wasn’t much more interesting than the fancy kitchen / cooking store I had been in but at least there was a possibility of finding something interesting.  I shuffled in and was greeted by a kid who looked about 15. He was probably 25.  He quickly realized that I didn’t want to look at phones, computers or tablets and said to me, “Come look at this.”  He showed me to a 3D printer they had on display.  It is not a Microsoft product but they are allowing them to be displayed in their stores.  The machine is made in Brooklyn, New York.  I got very excited very quickly and started firing questions at him.  For those of you who don’t know what a 3D printer is, it is a machine that accepts a CAD file and then lays material down on a platform, layer by layer, building up the “thing” represented in the file.  Basically it prints a part.  When I saw how clean it was, how good the resolution was and how many different plastic materials it can build from I knew it was time to finally get my 3D printer.  I asked pimple face to wait while I ran to get my wife.  Naho is the head of finance here at Telemetry Solutions and I figured there would be no better way to get that department’s approval for the purchase than to show her.

In a few minutes she was standing with me watching this machine work.  Purchase approved!  It is really great to have the machine because it has seriously increased the output of one employee.  Recently I needed a housing for a test of an Iridium product for a customer in New Zealand.  It was just for a test in the forest, no need for a real housing that could withstand abuse so we printed one up real quick and Bob’s your uncle, out it went.

For our new micro GPS product we have 2 related devices that need housings.  One is the charger and the other is the base station.  Instead of spending thousands of dollars stocking housings for an entire year’s production, now we can design the housing and just print them out as needed, this greatly reduces our cash outlay and we are passing that savings along.  If you want to see a part being printed click the link and watch this video.

Printer building parts