Business

Cambridge Consultants helps keep South Pole penguins under surveillance

Photo courtesy of Cambridge Consultants.

Cambridge Consultants spends much of its time specializing in engineering and technology innovation, but now thanks to a satellite-enabled camera system it has designed, the firm is also helping to track penguins near the South Pole.

As enthusiasts of flightless birds know, Friday is World Penguin Day --- actually, penguins are so beloved that in some circles they rate two days of celebration. The other day is Jan. 20, which has been dubbed “Penguin Awareness Day.”

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(For those chronicling the book of days, an e-mail from a thoughtful flak notes that World Penguin Day is followed by World Intellectual Property Day, an event that can cause a geeky thought leader to jump and frisk. No doubt Kendall Square saloon-keepers are already recruiting extra bouncers to help restrain the Saturday night crowd of IP party animals.)

But back to penguins. Cambridge Consultants has decided to use World Penguin Day as a jumping off point to discuss its conservation efforts in Antarctica to help such collaborators as the Penguin Lifelines project, Oxford University, and the Zoological Society of London.

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(Cambridge Consultants is based in Cambridge, UK. Its US office is in Kendall Square.)

A black rhino. Photo taken from a National Geographic website.

About a year or so ago, Cambridge Consultants was involved in a project in Kenya designed to track black rhinos and help preserve them from poachers. As part of that project, the firm designed a system of motion-triggered cameras that were deployed around watering holes and rhino stomping grounds. Those cameras could send nearly real-time photos to the Iridium network of roughly 65 satellites that orbit the earth.

Now a handful of prototype cameras have been repurposed for penguin surveillance in Antarctica.

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Previously, Penguin trackers would regularly have to visit cameras deployed for observation to retrieve photos, Cambridge Consultants program director Marion Campbell said during a telephone interview. 

That was largely because sophisticated cellphone networks and wildlife habitats rarely occupy the same geographies. What’s more, the cameras and the batteries that power them often required periodic maintenance.

Cambridge Consultants’ challenge was to design cameras that can send photos in real time while requiring little maintenance. While weather and sunlight can come into play with the solar panels that recharge batteries, the hope is that the firm’s cameras in Antarctica can function for up to a year without a human visiting the site, said Jonathan Pallant, a senior engineer at Cambridge Consultants.

“Data from a whole load of cameras are put together to understand when penguins breed each year and how long it takes to raise chicks,” Tom Hart, a penguin specialist, wrote in an e-mail. 

Photos also can help scientists to better understand how climate change and changes in ice melting affect penguins. Armed with data about where penguins feed and breed, the Zoological Society of London can also try to preserve the birds’ food supply by persuading commercial fishing companies to temporarily steer clear from areas where penguins are chowing down. 

In some ways, deploying cameras in Antarctica is a bit easier than setting them up in Kenya. In Africa, cameras and their battery units have to be unobtrusive so poachers don’t spot them and destroy them. These units also have to be rugged as camera-shy rhinos have been known to get frightfully unruly when asked to say, “Cheese.” Such issues are of less concern with penguins, whose placid temperaments are rarely ruffled by anger-management issues.

Chris Reidy can be reached at reidy@globe.com.
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