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Never before in history have wildlife biologists had so much choice in terms of tracking equipment.

February 12th, 2014

If you were a wildlife biologist in the late 1960s or early 1970s you very well may have been building your own VHF transmitters.  And that means ordering the parts, soldering the parts together and “potting” everything in dental acrylic to try to make it waterproof.  You could be working with a bird or a mammal as small as a squirrel or maybe a large mammal.  Your VHF receiver would be massive and the battery a monster.  You would have to haul that receiver around in the hinterland trying to get one position on one animal at a time.  You wouldn’t have very many people to ask for advice, you would be a pioneer in the field and the data you accumulate, while possibly leading you to the wrong conclusion, would be fresh and exciting.  Later in the 1970s telemetry companies started popping up and quality slowly got better and better.  But you would still be using VHF, GPS didn’t come along in wildlife until the 1980s and then it was back to square one as far as size was concerned, GPS collars were very big and they cost over $7000 CDN back in the ‘80s.  The prices have come down a lot.

Why am I telling you this?  I’m telling you not to give you a history lesson but rather I’m trying to give you a little perspective about wildlife research tracking products and the effort one needs to expend to obtain data from them.  While you may consider the current state of the technology frustrating and difficult as well as complicated and time consuming to use keep in mind where it all began and how far it has come.   I contend that today a great number of researchers are buying and using wildlife tracking products that are not the best choices for what they are doing but that the supply (manufacturers of such equipment) has increased so dramatically that end users are not actually considering all of their options before deciding on a product and placing an order.

What are some things most of our customers don’t know about their GPS?

February 5th, 2014

When you own a small business thoughts about that business never leave your head for very long.  Last week on the drive to work I started considering what we can do to enable our clients to know just a little more about the products that they have purchased from us.  This is what I came up with.

Remotely upload a new GPS schedule to collar or backpack:

We think this is unknown because we never actually advertised it nor included it in our user manual.   When some of our customers discovered on their own that it was possible they remarked to us, “Wow, we like this but did not know we could do it.” The reason that we decided not to advertise it in the first place is because after you change from the original to the modified GPS schedule the original GPS battery life estimation is out the window because the new schedule is different from the original and that changes estimated battery life.  So if you change the GPS schedule be careful and pay attention to the new battery life estimate……and make that new schedule include the original schedule up to the date that you changed it, that will make the battery life estimation correct.

Increase GPS precision without affecting worse case battery life estimation:

To understand this one you need to understand something we call GPS timeout.  GPS timeout is a limit that you set prior to deploying the GPS in the field.  This setting limits the amount of time that the GPS is allowed to remain on while attempting a GPS location.  There are 3 choices, 60, 90 and 120 seconds.  Let’s assume that you set your GPS for a 60 second timeout.

When your scheduled time for a GPS position attempt arrives the GPS will turn on.  And it will remain on for some number of seconds that it needs in order to produce that GPS position but it won’t go past the GPS timeout which was 60 seconds.  The estimated battery life calculated by the user software before you deployed will have made the assumption that each time the GPS turns on it uses those entire 60 seconds.  But in fact that’s not going to happen, many times the GPS will turn off well before 60 seconds and you will still have a GPS position.   Therefore the estimated battery life is based on using the entire GPS timeout each and every time the GPS comes on.

Stay with me, we’re almost there.  Let’s talk about how precision and time to fix are related.  When the GPS turns on and off in a short period of time, let’s say 15 seconds….that GPS location will be good but not as precise as it could be.  But sometimes 15 seconds are all that is needed to obtain a GPS location.  When this happens the GPS turns off and just does not use that other 45 seconds that were available according to your 60 second GPS timeout setting.  But if you use our ‘GPS additional time’ feature and set it to 45 seconds, for example, then when the GPS would still have acquired that position within those 15 seconds rather than turn off, the GPS will remain on for an additional 45 seconds.  That position is going to be far more precise than the position that was acquired and written to memory after 15 seconds.  But the GPS will not remain on for longer than your GPS timeout and therefore your estimated battery life calculation is still valid!  This costs nothing, it is included in the user software.  We call this GPS additional time.

Extend GPS battery life by up to 9 times without a heavier battery:

Before you deploy your GPS tracking device you will obviously set up a GPS positioning schedule so that your device will come on at the appointed times and attempt a GPS position.   But if you study an animal that spends a lot of time resting in a place where a GPS location is unlikely, a fisher inside a tree hollow or a rabbit underground for example, the GPS may turn on when the animal is in one of these resting places.  If that happens your GPS device will be wasting battery when it turns on to take a location without being able to acquire GPS signals.  For you this is totally wasted battery life, you get nothing for it.  But we have a way that you can program that GPS position but the GPS won’t attempt that position if the animal is found in the condition described above. We call this Smart GPS and this is how it works.

The basic function can be described as a 3-axis accelerometer informing the microprocessor about movement levels and using that information to determine whether or not to attempt the next scheduled GPS attempt or to save the battery usage and just skip it.

There are 4 parts to Smart GPS.

  • A minimum activity level that must be exceeded in order for the next GPS to take place.  In this way you are in control over what constitutes a resting animal.
  • A counter which keeps track of instances of this minimum activity level being exceeded.  In conjunction with the minimum activity level above this gives you more control over what constitutes a resting animal.
  • A function that enables you to choose when the “instances of exceeded activity level” counter resets back to 0.  This helps you to protect your data set from just being totally empty in the case that you set either the minimum activity level too high or the counter too high.
  • A function that temporarily disables Smart GPS based upon movement information. This function protects you in the case that you set the activity level and counter too high.

To elaborate, before deployment you will set all of these parameters.  Setting the minimum activity level is done simply by inputting an arbitrary number into the software.  This number represents an activity level that must be exceeded so that Smart GPS won’t take effect.  The user software enables you to see what this number represents in terms of movement because you move the collar while looking at the user software and you can see that number change as movement intensity changes (GPS device connected to PC by USB cable at the time you do this).

The counter needs to know the minimum number of instances (x) that the movement intensity described above must be exceeded in order to disable the Smart GPS the next time the GPS should turn on.  In other words, since the counter started counting the minimum activity intensity must be exceeded X number of times or else the next scheduled GPS position attempt will be skipped.

Another setting allows you to control the way in which the counter resets itself.  The counter will always reset after a scheduled GPS location takes place.  Other than that your counter works in one of two ways.  The first is that it will always reset to 0 at the time of a GPS location that was skipped because the minimum activity level was not exceeded enough times to warrant a GPS location.  But what if you set that counter number much higher than you should have?  You will be missing out on a lot of GPS data.  To protect yourself from this you can choose to have the counter to continue accumulating instances of the minimum intensity occurrences even if the time for the next scheduled GPS instance has arrived and been skipped.

Finally, yet another way to protect your data set from the mistake of setting either the minimum activity intensity too high or setting the counter too high.  This last feature allows you to force the GPS to totally ignore the Smart GPS feature after X number of consecutive skipped GPS attempts.  In other words, the animal has not moved enough to over ride Smart GPS skip.  This can be because the animal really is not moving much or it could be because your settings are too high.  Choose a number from 1 to 99 and use that to program this feature and then the GPS will always turn on after that number of skipped GPS positions regardless of movement.

The data download can be automated, no need for you to be there:

Our Q4000E has the remote data download feature and it works by establishing a UHF connection between the GPS device and something we refer to as a base station.  The base station is a transceiver on the same frequency as the transceiver in the GPS device.  Normally when you want to obtain GPS data remotely using this system you would locate the animal (probably using the VHF signal) then tell the base station to make a connection to the GPS and download its data.  This is achieved by entering into the base station the unique transceiver address of the GPS device in question.  Then push one button and the connection is made, the data are transferred to you and the connection is terminated.

If you know where your study animals are going to be you can set up this base station to perform the above task without your physical presence.  Understandably this is not practical for every application but for those that it practical for all you have to do to get the GPS data is make a trip out to the base station.   Extract the data from the laptop that is running the base station…just plug a flash drive into it, wait for the beep and your done.

Log activity data on your terms not ours:

This activity logging feature is made with your needs in mind, not ours.  We have designed this feature so that you can set up the activity sensing in a way that best fits your needs.  Here are the parameters that you can set.  You choose the sampling rate per second, you choose the number of samples that compile into one line of data, you choose an activity threshold below which all movement will be ignored and not counted in the activity log and you set the times in the day for the activity logger to be turned on.   By using these settings you can focus on detecting the activity that is most interesting to you.  Here is more information about how the activity logger works. (It is all based on a 3 axis accelerometer).

Sampling rates:  There are 6 activity sampling rate choices.  4 times per second, 2 times per second, 1 time per second, once every 2 seconds, once every 3 seconds or once every 4 seconds.

Delta Time:  You choose how many of these samples are compiled into one line of data in the output.  In other words, if you have the accelerometer set to sample activity levels 4 times per second and then you choose to have one line of data represent 60 seconds worth of sampling then in fact that one line of activity data represents 240 instances of activity sampling.  Conversely you may choose that 1 line of data is representative of 1 seconds worth of sampling with in this case would be 4 samples.  That allows you either fine scale activity monitoring or coarse scale monitoring.

The user software empowers you to set a level of activity below which activity data will not be recorded even when it occurs.  In the case that you are not interested in small movements this allows you to eliminate from your data set those small movements.  If you are interested in small movements then you can set this feature to 1 and everything will be logged.

After you have set the activity detection parameters described above you then schedule the times in the day that the activity data will be detected and stored.

GPS data can be transmitted by wireless through water:

When one of our customers asked us if our UHF remote data download feature worked in water we had to confess that we did not know because we had never tried it.  Well, they did try it and it does work.  Watch this video and see their experiment from a kayak on a pond in Australia.

Products available with USB port factory sealed:

The Telemetry Solutions Q4000E is equipped with a micro USB port which allows you to install the GPS schedule as well as set up all other parameters you need to set.  Before the collar is deployed that USB port must be sealed.  Because it is not round there is no plug to screw in but rather a 3 step process to make that port waterproof.  While this is really a simple process that can be accomplished in 30 seconds we have heard from some customers that they would rather have that port factory sealed and then set all parameters and upload the GPS schedule by UHF wireless in their office.  We have been doing this for years but until now it was only done at the request of the customer.  From now on it will be part of the initial order, we will ask you which you prefer.  Existing customers please note that you do not have to wait for the RTV to dry before applying the epoxy, the RTV does not require air to dry.


When will GPS transmitters get small?

December 26th, 2013

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that……..  First of all, GPS are not transmitters, they are receivers.  GPS data are often transmitted but that’s not a function of the GPS.  Am I getting grouchy in my old age?  Maybe.  But I need to be quite specific so that there are no misunderstandings.  Over the years I have made it a habit of using consistent language to describe our products in order to be as clear as possible with potential and existing clients.   So we agree that GPS are not transmitters?  Good.

Now on to the next thing….when will they get small?  Small indeed!  I started in this industry in the 1970s and at that time not only was there not GPS for wildlife but the VHF transmitters available were not exactly small.  The folks who are old enough to remember those big transmitters as well as the large receivers and heavy batteries can probably appreciate how far things have in the wildlife tracking field.  But there are a lot of young people out there who are not only new to this field but also expect GPS data and expect it to pop up on their mobile phone without having to set foot in the wild.

I know that is the way things seem to be out in the world these days but it’s still hard for me to reconcile this attitude in relation to wildlife tracking very small animals.  Even so there are ways to get these things done.  I have been kicking one idea in particular around for a couple of years.  But just because something can be done doesn’t mean anyone is going to buy it.   4 years ago we brought out a GPS that had a total weight of 2 grams and people were not exactly beating a path to our door to purchase it.

For less than 10 grams we can make a GPS with remote data download and a solar rechargeable battery that will give thousands of GPS points remotely.  So when will GPS transmitters get small?  Answer:  They already are!  Next question!


A day in the life of a wildlife tracking manufacturer

October 17th, 2012

For me, coming to work in the morning is a pleasure. It starts in the parking lot. I usually arrive just after we open and entering the parking lot I scan the cars to see if anyone is missing. No one ever is but this is a bad habit that I have developed. I know that the day at work will get pretty intense so after I turn off the car I usually just sit and watch people arrive at work across the street from us. This will be the last peace and quiet I get until I leave work at the end of the day. So I enjoy it. When I get out of my car I can usually smell the salt air and hear seagulls overhead. This really is the most serene part of the day for me.

Due to the nature of the work there is no question that each day will be interesting and filled with challenges. Manufacturing GPS wildlife tracking equipment, the goal is always to get quality equipment into the hands of our customers in a timely manner. We always have both new orders and service work going on and the orders are all in various stages of completion. Just today, for example we have new and service orders for swamp wallaby, feral cats, pygmy rabbits (2 of these), bobcat, various birds including skua and emu, wolverine, grizzly, bighorn sheep, fox and feral pigs.

On top of this we have development projects to be overseen and I’ll have meetings with the sales department, engineering department, production department and customer support. Toss in a few questions from vendors, accountants, bankers and lawyers. Sometimes it is enough to make you want to just sit down and blog about it.

After 16 years as the founder and president of Telemetry Solutions this year I had to remove myself from the front lines so that I can orchestrate this madness effectively. I was anxious about turning over the reigns in the sales department but my fears were unfounded. The much younger sales person that heads up that department has digitized everything that used to reside in my head. And his cohort has it all up in the cloud to be accessed quickly and easily regardless of where one is. I should have turned over the reigns sooner maybe.

In the afternoon production ends their day and they filter out. The next to go is engineering followed by customer support and finally the sales team. Then it is just me and lots and lots of GPS equipment. I could stay all night, just move a cot in. But eventually I realize that work has to end for the day. I go out to an empty parking lot and always wonder, “Where the hell is everybody?” I load up the car with several GPS units that will have an overnight test before shipping out, push the on button in the Prius and head home. For sure tomorrow will be another good day. I cannot wait.

Can customers direct R&D?

July 30th, 2012

I have been selling GPS collars for almost 20 years and the time finally came that I turn it over to someone else.  We have a very competent young guy from San Jose CA.  He is enthusiastic and unlike me he chooses to keep information in a computer rather than in his head.  But he knows how to find what he needs.  He even incorporates technology into the sales process.  I used to just talk to people on the phone during a sales consultation.

Tiny GPS with remote download

Wildlife GPS collar, 27 grams including remote download

When he took over the sales from me he took inquiries at face value.  For example, ‘Can we buy a GPS that records a position every 2 seconds, weighs 5 grams and lasts for 1 year?”  Oh, toss solar power on there too while you are at it.  Solar, the solution to everything……not.  I quickly explained to him that he needs to concentrate on the most realistic inquiries.  But he wants to please everyone so he kept pushing me for things we cannot do.

I exaggerate slightly, we like to get inquiries that push the boundaries a bit.  Every few months or so we build a GPS for an application never before tried.  One example was when a snake guy called looking for a python GPS for The Everglades.  I think he has two or three of those now and they do acquire GPS positions even though they are implants.

Our sales person, Anthony, knows that our lightest GPS collar is 31 grams.  But Friday he got off of a call and then came to me requesting a 27 grams GPS collar.  I love his timing too, he normally waits until my hand is on the door knob to go to lunch or something when he starts a major conversation.  I explained to him that we cannot make a GPS collar at 27 grams.  We can make 3 or 4 gram GPS glue on devices but to satisfy the need at hand we would have to build a collar and that weighs 31 grams.  But then I started thinking about it.  I thought I had a way so I told him to call that customer back and suggest that we have an idea.  Today I built it at 24 grams.  Not too bad cutting 7 grams off of a previous best of 31 grams.    For sales purposes I think we will advertise 27 grams, better to deliver more than we promise than the other way around.  The GPS includes remote UHF download capability, is fully user programmable, can have the activity data option enabled as well as the Smart GPS feature without adding weight.

If that customer had not stressed her need for a 27 gram collar I would not have spent my day today working on this project, there certainly is not a shortage of tasks to complete on any given day.  We suspect more weight will be shaved from this device in the coming days.  No compromise in package integrity was made, we just treated took extra time to really watch every little thing we did to the unit.  If you are interested in this or any other product please contact our sales department and remember that just because you did not see it on the website that does not mean that you cannot have it.