New uses for Platform Transmitter Terminals (PTTs) are exploding
From Fredericksburg.com, Saturday, July 11, 2009:
Biologists get some guidance from above
Photo: Snow leopard in Asia is wearing a North Star satellite tracking collar.
Photo: M. Blake Henke of King George County holds a stuffed pheasant with a North Star satellite tracker on its back.
Photo: One of North Star's collars was put on a rare jaguar in Arizona this year.
BY FRANK DELANO
Wild goose chases will never be the same, thanks partly to M. Blake Henke.My pet cat is out and about, every few hours, all day long. Outdoors, she walks mostly on stone and lush grass and she knows everything that goes on, sometimes five minutes before it happens. For example, she will hear the milkman arriving to at least fifteen minutes in advance of my hearing the actual delivery.
Henke, 41, is the managing partner of North Star Science and Technology LLC. Based at Henke's home in King George County, the company makes and markets satellite trackers of wild animals and birds.
The devices "have totally revolutionized wildlife biology," said Henke. "You can learn a lot about an animal when you know where it goes, where it spends its time and how much territory it needs."
North Star trackers have been used to study dozens of species, including cranes and flamingos in Africa, buzzards and snow leopards in Asia, mountain lions in South Dakota and black bears in New Jersey.
HawkWatch International of Salt Lake City is one of Henke's oldest customers. HawkWatch has bought more than 100 trackers since North Star first started selling them in 1999, said science director Jeff Smith.
Smith said the units have provided "amazing information" about the wanderings of northern goshawks, red-tailed hawks and golden eagles in the Rockies, Cascades and other Western mountains. Some young birds were found to summer in far northern Canada and to winter in Mexico.
Smith said HawkWatch recently loaned four of its North Star trackers to wildlife biologists studying short-toed eagles in Israel.
"The birds migrated to Chad and Sudan in Africa, including the troubled Darfur region, but they all survived and did well," Smith said.
The trackers are called Platform Transmitter Terminals, or PTTs. North Star's PTTs range from small to extra small.
Its biggest transmitter is attached to a collar that will fit a buffalo's neck. It weighs about 2 pounds, depending on the length of the collar.
Small units for birds are often attached to them like miniature backpacks. The smallest North Star PTT weighs just 9.5 grams, less than two nickels.
Powered by batteries or solar panels, the trackers contain tons of technology that fix a critter's location by satellites. The positions are transmitted to satellites, then back to Earth for plotting and analysis. Newer GPS models allow biologists to follow an animal in real time on Google Maps.
Henke said North Star sells about 500 bird PTTs a year at about $3,000 each and about 400 GPS animal collars costing between $2,500 and $3,200. The units are built by high-tech production firms in Maryland and North Carolina.
He graduated with a history degree from the University of Virginia in 1990, "but I always wanted to work in an environmental field somewhere," he said.
His chance came in 1994 when he was working for a defense contractor and met William S. Seegar, an Army research scientist working to rebuild peregrine falcon populations at an Army base in Maryland.
Seegar had worked with the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University to develop the first transmitter to go on a bird in 1984. Henke said he and Seegar hit it off. They formed North Star in 1998.
Henke, his wife, Stephanie, and their two sons moved to King George in 2002 to be closer to relatives. Her parents live in Lancaster County, his in Fauquier.
"King George is sort of in the middle," he said. "What I do is all on the Internet and the phone. I can work anywhere."
North Star "has had very good growth and we see continued growth," he said. The continuing miniaturization of PTTs will allow them to be used on smaller species. Henke thinks more species will lead to more PTT sales.
The company also has high hopes for logging collars that can store a year or two of data before dropping off. When it does, a VHF radio transmitter on the collar will emit a signal so researchers can retrieve it and its data.
New uses for PTTs are exploding, he said.
For example, he said, "We sell a lot to Japan where the government has put a lot of money into avian flu research. What better way to track a possible epidemic associated with widely ranging water birds than to put satellite trackers on them?"
Frank Delano: 804/761-4300