Industrial Design and Innovation

Keeping track: Conservation Design at AUT

In recent years, Product Designer and AUT lecturer Shane Inder has been working with Conovation, a New Zealand based company working in the area of pest management.

Shane has two main projects underway with Conovation: ‘Pest Control Device’ which is currently in the testing and development phase and ‘Species recognition,’ a design you can read about below:

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‘New Zealand conservation services spend millions of dollars annually on protecting native flora and fauna.

With more than 40% of pre-human bird species now extinct, the proportion of birds classed as threatened in New Zealand is one of the world’s highest.

And a campaign to eradicate pests such as stoats and weasels was costly in time and resources.

One of the biggest issues for conservationists is figuring out what animals are out there, says Dr Helen Blackie, associate director for Lincoln University’s Centre for Wildlife Management and Conservation.

Many of the conservation areas are in remote locations such as islands, and monitoring animals is labour intensive.

“If you wanted to see if a pest had reappeared in an area through to be pest-free, someone had to go there and monitor an area for several nights and even then there was no guarantee you would detect anything.”

Until recently the most common way of discovering which animals were in an area was to use tracking tunnels.

“The animal would walk across an ink pad and then over a piece of card as it moved towards the bail in the tunnel,” Blackie says.

Conservation staff had the laborious task of collecting and analysing the pieces of card.

“As you can imagine, once you factored in muddy paws, ink being smeared by animals walking backwards and forwards over it and then, in some cases, eating the card, it was a nightmare,” she says.

A search of how other countries’ conservation authorities handled the problem turned up nothing useful. So Blackie and her team decided to started with a blank sheet to develop their own solution.

“The key premise was that we wanted something that was rugged and could withstand being left out in the open for long periods, and that would automatically figure out what animal had stepped on it,” she says. “We needed a tool that would help us clarify animal numbers and population characteristics as part of long-term conservation control programmes.”

In addition, the units also had to be responsive enough to track animals moving quickly in and out of the tunnels, have long battery life and need as little maintenance as possible. It also had to access information easily.

These requirements led to the concept of a sensor pad with the ability to store information about what animal had stepped on it and when.

Dr Ian Woodhead, chief scientist at Lincoln Agritech (a university subsidiary), says the units’ development involved a broad range of skills from different organisations: animal behaviour knowhow and evaluation from Blackie and her team; a concept for the sensor from Lincoln Agritech – including electronics and software from its engineer Paul Riding; and mechanical and enclosure design, printing and fabrication by Auckland University of Technology product design lecturer Shane Inder.

The collaboration involved will serve as a good example for future developments, he says.

Blackie says the two-and-a-half-year-old project has run “surprisingly smoothly”. The result is an innovative device, nicknamed the ‘nose cone’ because of its share and removable hood.

It can be placed either in existing tracking tunnels or in other locations and uses clever electronic technology to identify and classify species.

It’s currently being tested on the West Coast where it has been sited alongside motion sensitive cameras to double-check its accuracy.

“Our current trials show the device to be capable of a 95% accuracy for stoats, ferrets, possums, cats, rats and mice,” Blackie says. “Once you can identify the animal and get an idea of their numbers, you can adapt your management accordingly.”

She says the device has already attracted international interest due to its potential to identify pests on, for instance, cargo ships or in grain silos, as well as conservation agencies wanting to remotely monitor populations of threatened animals.

“It is crucial information because if you stop control programmes too early they’ll fail, while to continue them for too long adds unnecessary expense.

“The commercial applications are huge and further development could see the technology designed to work alongside systems such as a vaccine delivery device for control of animal diseases.”

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