discussion / Biologging  / 6 March 2019

OpenCollar Update 1

Time for a quick update as our team is working at full speed to have our first open source elephant tracker ready by the end of March. 

As you might know,  we are working on OpenCollar, an open-source modular animal-tracking collar system for environmental and wildlife monitoring projects. 

The design of the tracking collar will be completely modular and it will be possible to combine the modules into several different configurations, depending on the use-case, which will enable wildlife experts to use the collar on a wide range of different animals. The first step will be development of a tracking collar that will be used for elephant tracking, with the modules developed suitable for later modification and use with other animals as well.

Figure 1: Components and modules of the OpenCollar tracking system (Picture can be found below)

We’ve already had a design session, where we went over existing solutions and experience with them to better understand what is needed in the field, what features of the existing collars work, and what are the main problems that need to be solved.

To speed up the development process, we will use Arribada Initiative’s GPS tracker as a starting point, the same electronics that are used in PitStop GPS Tags for tracking of the endangered green sea turtles. It is a tested and proven well-made solution that already features GPS, Bluetooth, very good software support and a robust waterproof enclosure. We will be adding LoRaWAN connectivity and customizing the enclosure to create an all-around GPS tracker. Also, batteries and a collar belt will be added, suitable for elephant tracking.

Figure 2: Arribada Initiative’s GPS tracker (Check out the picture below)

The first version of the tracking collar will feature a GPS and an accelerometer with LoRaWAN, LoRaWAN-to-space and Bluetooth connectivity. The customizability will enable more sensors, connectivity and add-ons to be added later. The goal is to develop a system that will empower researchers, conservationists and wildlife experts, and give them a solution, custom-fit to their needs.

Open-source technologies and sharing of knowledge have the potential of improving the monitoring of species to achieve a greater impact. 

Like we said, at the end of March we'll be testing our first prototype, so stay tuned!



What is the expected battery life of the collar?



Hi. How would one go about joining the project? I'm an embedded engineer specializing in wireless sensor networks and software.

Hi Tom.

I think there are a couple of areas that I (and others here at hackerfarm) could help out in:

  • Custom hardware design - It's best to stick with the hardware you have for an end of March pilot, but usually there can be optimizations that can be made for either cost, power consumption, or feature set. As long as there's a decent time frame, we can discuss what a v2 open collar tag would look like. A lot of times, once the requirements and features are known and fixed, it's better to remove the modular portions of the design and put everything on to one circuit  board. This decreases cost and improves reliability. For example, it'd be possible to mount the wireless radio directly on the board if you know it will be LoRA or 802.15.4, etc. Also, if you use an enclosure, it probably makes more sense to mount an external GPS antenna on the enclosure. A flat, external GPS antenna would usually be an active antenna meaning they have an amplifier inside the antenna to boost the signal. Currently you're using a passive patch antenna which has less surface area for reception and no boost circuitry. As long as your hardware supports providing power to the active antenna, you can get a lock under much harsher conditions (ie: under dense foliage) and usually much faster.  
  • Mechanical design - If it's going on an elephant, it probably needs to be in  a robust enclosure. There are a lot of off-the-shelf enclosures that can be targeted within a good budget range. If there are specific size or form factor requirements, then custom enclosures can be made. If the quantities are low, these can just be 3D printed. If they scale at all above something like ten collars, then a discussion would need to be had on manufacturing custom enclosures which usually involves plastic injection molding, around $10k in tooling costs, and  likely a lead time of 5-10 months. Since it'd have to be a ruggedized enclosure, it would probably be more expensive than for a consumer device. For early versions, I'd recommend using off-the-shelf enclosures and if there's need (and funding), then moving to a custom enclosure.
  • Device firmware - Firmware is the neverending story of engineering. You're never finished. There will likely need to be work done for power management, user interface, USB interface, GPS parsing, wireless communications, accelerometer parsing, real time clock, etc. And then people will request more features. 
  • App design - Likely will need to be an easy to use GUI app to configure the devices to provision them for deployment. They would need some type of identifier, probably various configuration items, setting the clock, etc. It would probably also need to have an easy way to download device firmware updates to the tag, if it's assumed that people that aren't very technical will be updating the devices in the field.  
  • Device Testing - Depending on scale and quantity, there will need to be some type of test fixture required to test the hardware circuitry since the manufacturing assembly house will statistically make a certain number of mistakes. The test fixture would need to be custom made for the specific board and the test software would also need to be written.

Hopefully I'm not overwhelming you. I'm an EE and product designer by trade and also taught manufacturing to industrial designers at MIT Media Lab. If there will only be a few collars made, then you can ignore a lot of what I wrote, but if it goes above around 100+, then things start getting complicated. 

We work on a lot of open source designs here at hackerfarm and do projects for UNESCO and World Bank. If it's for a good cause, we're interested to help :)