Find out how Vodafone is helping organisations like the Sea Mammal Research Unit keep track of endangered species all around the world...

harbour-seal

In the UK, some populations of Harbour seals have declined by up to 90% in the last 10 years, and with just 500,000 at most across the globe, Harbour seals are now on the brink of being ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Thankfully, the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) in St Andrews, Scotland, has been on the case for some years now. And for Bernie McConnell – Deputy Director of the SMRU – this has been a lifelong passion, from his earliest days on the chilly shores of the North Sea.

Save our seals

“I was brought up in a fishing village not far from here,” he says. “As a kid I used to spend all my time in the harbour and around the rockpools.

“I think there are two things that really attracted me to marine biology. One of those was the emotional appeal of the sea, I was always thinking, ‘how does the sea work? How do marine mammals work?’ Then there’s also the intellectual side of biology and how animals have adapted to live in their marine environment. Those two things together are what make marine biology such an exciting subject for me.”

Despite its remote location, the SMRU is acknowledged around the world as a leading light in marine science. Bernie himself leads the SMRU’s Instrumentation Group – also internationally renowned for using innovative telemetry systems to track and monitor marine mammals.

“One of the things that we’re discovering is that animals have very specific places they go to at sea.” he explains. “And we want to know where seals operate at sea so we can avoid disrupting those areas.

“We were the first people to put a telemetry tag on a seal back in the mid-80s…”

“We were the first people to put a telemetry tag on a seal back in the mid-80s,” he continues. “You stick it to the seal and it’ll tell you where it’s going and how far it’s diving. The problem with that system though, is that we were only getting the tip of the iceberg in terms of the data that was being collected – we could only see an approximation of where the seals were once or twice a day.”

We expect you’re wondering where Vodafone comes into all this? Well, our very own Simon Gordon is a keen diver and one evening he came across the work being done by Bernie’s Instrumentation Group and spotted an opportunity for the two to work together.

“It just happened by chance, really!” Simon laughs. “As a diver I have a vested interest in marine biology and research, but I really just stumbled upon the work Bernie was doing. Essentially, he was going down to his local shop in St Andrews and buying 20 standard SIMs at a time, and then installing the SIMs and activating them, which is not very efficient when used across multiple mobile network worldwide.

“I gave him a call out of the blue, and we arranged to meet up and got talking about alternative technologies. One of those technologies was M2M, or Machine to Machine to give it its full name.”

What is M2M tech, then? Well, you may well know it as the ‘Internet of Things’. M2M tech, allows machines and devices to connect to the internet, thus allowing them to communicate and share information via our network, but without the need for human intervention.

“The beauty of M2M is that it works across 2G, 3G and 4G, but it creates its own separate networks…”

“The beauty of M2M is that it works across 2G, 3G and 4G, but it creates its own separate networks,” explains Simon. “That has a number of benefits for Bernie and his team. Firstly, they have full control of the SIM from one PC at the research centre in St Andrews. That means that once it’s installed into one of their devices – which is very much like a mobile phone – they can track it, see how it’s performing and turn it on and off whenever they want.

“You can’t do any of those things with a standard SIM, but with M2M you can see immediately if there’s a fault with the device, and that enables them to fix it quicker. But obviously, they still have to get it back from the seal first!” he states.

“Another huge benefit is that as a world leader in marine science, the SMRU sends a lot of these devices overseas for other research facilities to use – for example, they’ll send some devices to Hawaii to help gather data on Monk seals, which are under threat too. With M2M, they don’t have to worry about the SIM being set to the right spectrum band for the right territory – it all works off one M2M network, and that’s universal all over the world. Between Vodafone’s network and our partner networks, that covers the majority of destinations around the globe.”

vodafone-seal-tags

“A long term venture…”

From unlikely beginnings, a strong partnership has now formed that Bernie and Simon feel will be mutually beneficial, not just for the SMRU and Vodafone, but also hopefully for the UK’s Harbour seals. Although the short term goals are clear, this is a “long term venture,” says Simon – one that has potential to help a wide range of conservation efforts, not just the Harbour seal.

“We’ll be working with the SMRU at our lab in Newbury to see how we can improve the data capture and relay of the device.”

“There’s definitely potential to do similar work with other threatened species,” he says, “and this is an area that we’re exploring in the lab. If you think about a seal, it comes up for air and usually stays up on the surface for a while; maybe it comes to the beach for a bit, and then pops back down again. That gives plenty of time for an M2M SIM to relay all the data it’s collected to the SMRU. Now, turtles, whales and porpoises behave differently – they come up for air and go back straight back down again, so we’re looking at ways to improve the ability to send that data quickly. We’ll be working with the SMRU at our lab in Newbury to see how we can improve the data capture and relay of the device.

“I think the next few years are going to be very exciting,” adds Bernie. “This is opening up great new avenues for us and our colleagues worldwide. It doesn’t just help UK conservation – this is of global benefit.”

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