ElephantEdge tracker: breakdown advanced IoT animal tracking solutions

Institute IRNAS
8 min readSep 25, 2020

IRNAS and Smart Parks have been working on designing the next generation of open-source tracking solutions for national park management and wildlife protection for the past two years and the deployment of these solutions in the field has proven very valuable.


Event info

  • First OpenCollar for Elephant successfully deployed in Liwonde National Park — Park Rangers in Liwonde National Park in Malawi are for the first time able to see elephant locations every fifteen minutes. This is possible due to new Smart Parks technology providing Rangers with GPS-locations four times an hour. With this information, elephants can be better protected. Read More
  • ‘Holy grail in rhino monitoring’ deployed in Liwonde National Park — Smart Parks and African Parks have successfully implanted the first GPS LoRaWAN™ enabled transmitters into the horns of two eastern black rhinos at Liwonde National Parks in Malawi. Read More
  • Successful deployment of OpenCollars on big grazers in Europe — Smart Parks and administrator PWN have successfully deployed OpenCollar tracker on Wisent and Scottish Highlanders in the Dutch National Park Zuid-Kennemerland, the first nature reserve in Europe that is equipped with a Smart Parks network. By using smart sensor technology, administrator PWN can now gather more information about the behaviour of large grazers. This knowledge helps with complicated management issues and contributes to a sustainable balance between nature, grazer, and recreation. Read More

The next important chapter of this story is encapsulated in The ElephantEdge tracker, a development project supported by Hackster.io and a wide range of technology partners. It is the first in line of the new OpenCollar Edge tracker series, incorporating the latest sensor and connectivity technologies, with the goal to improve the performance of the well-known tracking application, but also to widen the scope of applications and to improve the user-friendliness of these high tech devices.

At IRNAS we make sure to deliver sustainable, future-proof solutions. This requires a skilful integration of latest technologies with years of development experience. Our mission in this development project is to create the most advanced wildlife tracker to date.

OpenCollar Edge tracker development core system is already up and running under validation. In the following months, the system will be transformed into the form of an ElephantEdge tracker and mature to the production of the first batch of field testing units.

Following our excitement over the “what’s inside here” part, let’s dive deeper into the technical specification of the ElephantEdge tracker system.

Bluetooth communication and processing core nRF52840 by Nordic Semiconductor in uBlox NINA-B30x series modules

The core of the user experience of using this wildlife tracker is in the initial setup and placement of the tracker on the animal. The ranger, park manager and/or veterinarian is looking for control and confidence that the device will work as expected once the procedure of tagging the animal has started.

Most wildlife trackers do not have a friendly user interface that allows that and are mainly built by scientists, for scientists, who are used to spending time in a command-line interface. We are aiming to change this by adding a BLE interface enabling seamless configuration from smartphone or computer, while being secure and convenient.

Furthermore, firmware upgrades become a breeze and advanced BLE features such as tracker-to-tracker communication, detection of beacons are entirely feasible. The use of Zephyr RTOS in this project will also unlock smooth development and robust operation with a set of features, combined with the IRNAS work to implement Zephyr support of the key components.

The key advantage of selecting an RTOS to run on-device is the expanded capability of running a number of different tasks in parallel, particularly critical to support audio acquisition for machine learning with audio sampling for example as well as seamlessly integrating all the communication options. Furthermore, the multi-platform support enables straightforward reuse of the source for anyone building on top of this project in the future as well as regular maintenance with the official Nordic Semiconductor support.

LoRaWAN + GPS +WiFi positioning with Semtech LR1110 transceiver and high-precision GPS positioning with uBlox ZOE-M8G

Another key component that we like to talk about is the Semtech LR1110 transceiver. It combines a very capable LoRa transceiver with power-efficient GPS and WiFi positioning, thus enabling an order of magnitude more efficient positioning then true GPS receivers. The LR1110 transceiver is ideal for applications where very efficient operation is required, but not for applications wherein the tracker requires an internally resolved position for geofencing or very precise positioning. For this the best in class uBlox ZOE-M8G GPS transceiver is used to cover exactly these non-LoRa Edge applications.

The hybrid GPS solution which is combined to the same antenna allows the user to configure the most power-efficient tracking solution to date, with high precision positioning available.

The benefit of the hybrid solution is best demonstrated with an example of a small tracker with one 1200mAh battery (assuming we use this power only for GPS and LoRa transmissions) and wish to receive an update every 4 hours. Typical ZOE-M8G fix + LoRa SF9 message at 4h updates will be at 360 uWh per fix and LR1110 fix + LoRa SF9 message at any time interval will be 50uWh, a factor of 7 difference.

Just ZOE-M8G at 4h is expected to have about 500-day runtime, just LR1110 at 4h is expected to have 3500-day runtime, which is an immense difference. A hybrid scenario joining the benefits of ZOE-M8G to get precise position, time and almanach as well as LR1110 on power-efficient location updates, is more realistic.

A good compromise of position accuracy, when required, and power efficiency otherwise, would assume one precise fix per day with ZOE-M8G (assumed to use the same power as at 4h fix intervals) and LR1110 updates at 4h intervals. Such a system is expected to have about 1800 days of runtime. A very beneficial aspect of this approach is the ability to decide to choose between the two in runtime.

Wireless communication with Taoglas components and Lacuna.space connectivity

The design incorporates a wide set of wireless communication features. Bluetooth BLE directly from the nRF52 and WiFi from the LR1110 are combined into a single antenna for short-range communication and beacon detection. A single Taoglas ceramic patch antenna solution is used for GPS, switched between the LR1110 for power-efficient location acquisition and the ZOE-M8G for high precision positioning. The LR1110 LoRa interface is connected to the circularly polarized antenna suitable for efficient communication terrestrially to all the gateways as well as at the same time to work with the Lacuna.space LoRaWAN network in the low earth orbit, enabling true global coverage. Furthermore, the LR1110 additional RF output is used as a VHF transceiver, enabling on-demand legacy pinging that is used in more traditional wildlife tracking applications.

Sensors for monitoring, data storage with WesternDigital and on-device machine learning with Edge Impulse

Deploying a tracker on an animal with a collar offers an immense sensing opportunity well beyond position tracking. A wide suite of accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer options are available for this tracker forming the IMU core in addition to a microphone for sound recording, water detect switch to detect underwater events and more. The large volume of data created from all of these sources is stored on a Western Digital Edge microSD card, such that it can be retrieved from the unit at any point or wirelessly downloaded upon request, particularly creating the data for training of machine learning models. EdgeImpulse is the key player in this part, enabling processing all the sensor data in real-time and recognizing activities and events, which due to their very small form-factor can be easily transmitted through LoRaWAN or other throughput limited IoT methods.

Mechanics and power

You may be amazed by the high chips and sensors on-board of this new tracker, we need to take into account the fact that all of this is being put on a several tonne animal and must survive the constant wear and tear. As IRNAS we are specialized in mechanical design for robust enclosures for our IoT solution deployments and have developed design methods to create enclosures to withstand even deep-sea conditions, while at the same time tuning the antennas for maximal performance from within. This is enabled by the combination of highly durable 3D milled plastic and aluminium hybrid solution, fully watertight and capable of taking significant load.

We have combined this with the best artificial leather material for the belting, forming a robust and durable solution to last over a decade. Such a long lifetime can best be achieved by primary batteries LS17500 from Saft, 6 cells providing a total capacity of about 21Ah at 3.6V, which in turn means the average power consumption of the tracker must remain under 250uA. This is plenty, given the standby consumption on average is under 10uA and the rest is used to do useful work. In case we need more power, we also have developed an external power-pack, that also acts as a counterweight.

Industrial applications beyond animal conservation

Animal conservation is one of the best testing grounds for new technologies, extreme conditions and a very positive field to work in in general. Such projects not only challenge IRNAS to reach far out in our development spectrum but also provide a platform where we can test new technologies and validate them in most demanding environments. Through projects like ElephantEdge tracker, we can keep listing technological solutions to our portfolio that also apply to a number of demanding industrial applications we are jointly exploring with Avnet IoT solutions.



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