Disadvantages of GPS Animal Tracking
By John Papiewski
Although wildlife researchers made fruitful use of GPS devices for tracking animals, the technology has some disadvantages. The high cost of equipment puts a strain on research budgets. Technical restrictions make it impractical for studying smaller species and limit the time scientists can spend tracking animals.
Many GPS collars use the Global System for Mobile Communications, also used by cell phones, as a way to retrieve data from the device. This protocol allows a researcher to collect information about an animal's movements without the need to recapture it. In order for GSM to work, the scientist must conduct her research in an area that gets cellular phone service. Non-GSM collars use Ultra High Frequency radio signals to transmit data. Although these do not require local cell towers, the scientist must know the animal's location to within a few hundred yards in order to collect data from the collar.
Being completely mobile devices, GPS tracking collars rely on battery power to function. The battery powers the GPS unit itself along with related electronic components which store data. Under ideal conditions, a battery in a typical GPS collar lasts about a year; for longer studies, researchers must recapture tagged animals and replace the battery. If the terrain is unfavorable to GPS signals, the unit takes longer to establish a location, leading to shorter battery life. Longer-lasting batteries would necessarily weigh more, adding cost and weight to the unit.
At the time of publication, a GPS package for tracking an animal costs about $10,000. This includes the collar, receiver, software for collecting data and accessories, such as a spare battery and a drop-off mechanism which automatically releases the collar from the animal. A goal of scientific research is to obtain as much information as possible; the more data that supports a theory, the more supported the research. According to the United States Geological Survey, the high cost of equipment tends to restrict the numbers of animals tracked, leaving the scientist with less data.
A complete GPS tracking collar weighs about a pound. Scientists don't want equipment to impede an animal's movements or affect its behavior, as these encumbrances cause stress and interfere with the research. Although advances in technology have reduced the size and weight of many electronic components, some items, such as batteries and antennas, remain relatively bulky. GPS collars are best suited for animals larger than a medium-sized dog.
Chicago native John Papiewski has a physics degree and has been writing since 1991. He has contributed to "Foresight Update," a nanotechnology newsletter from the Foresight Institute. He also contributed to the book, "Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance."