Preparing for a digitally enabled future – The Bat Phone

Digital and engineering worlds meld seamlessly with the Bat Phone, a device developed by Tonkin + Taylor to enhance monitoring of New Zealand’s critically endangered bats (pekepeka).

The innovative use of this device, which received funding support from the company’s DreamLab innovation programme, exemplifies the complementary nature of digitisation to the wider Tonkin + Taylor business.

Group Innovation Programme Director and Technical Director Digital Innovation David Wyllie tells us how the Bat Phone came about and why the knowledge-based company is becoming increasingly digitally enabled.

Why are bat surveys needed in the engineering and construction sector?

Bats have become front of mind in the world of ecological consulting. During the last five years, there has been huge growth in projects requiring careful management of bats, and this is set to continue as future development, such as subdivisions, roads, wind farms, and landfills, affect bat habitat.

Our ecology team at Tonkin + Taylor regularly undertakes acoustic bat surveys using the Department of Conservation’s Acoustic Bat Monitors (ABMs) to determine levels of bat activity at a given site.  These devices are placed in an area where bat activity requires monitoring. Two important reasons for carrying out bat surveys are:

  1. To determine the presence or absence of bats and relative activity levels to inform Assessment of Ecological Effects for resource consent applications; and
  2. Prior to and during tree felling or vegetation clearance activities for projects where potential bat habitat needs to be removed. Acoustic surveys are undertaken immediately before tree removal to ensure bats are not roosting at the time.

Tell us about the Bat Phone – an innovative digital solution to bat monitoring

Our ecology team uses over 100 ABMs for bat monitoring on various projects. We’re often called in if a developer needs to know whether bats are present in a certain area, or where we’re involved with the engineering on a project requiring bat monitoring. It's all part of the services we offer.

Several years ago, the ecology team asked me to help them find a way of automatically collecting the bat monitoring data. Prior to this, my team had been developing a code to automatically process the data captured, but this was as far as we’d progressed the project.

Consequently, our ecology and digital solutions teams collaborated to develop the Bat Phone, a digital system that plugs into the ABMs. The tubular device is hung from a tree on the site being surveyed and contains a microphone that turns on when it hears bat activity and stores the information gathered (how many bats have frequented the site, and when).

Automatic processing of the data captured by the ABMs occurs every morning when the Bat Phone is in the field, and then satellite communications gather and send the data to the cloud. This digital system enables data files to be checked and analysed remotely, removing the need to physically visit the site to download the data, an often time consuming and cost-prohibitive activity due to the remoteness of the areas surveyed.

The Bat Phone has resulted in multiple benefits as we now have the code out in the field at the devices doing the processing and sending those results up to the cloud.

Sites are generally monitored for a couple of weeks to be certain of any bat activity. Now we’re able to see, almost in real time, what is going on with minimal cost and time expenditure. The battery life of the devices is generally three weeks, which is sufficient for the job’s requirements.

Testing the Bat Phone – the final stages

The first field trials will start shortly with what we hope is the final device. The initial testing determined that the device worked and, subject to field trials, several devices will be made and sent to actual sites with the intention to roll the device out on all our ABMs.

The device is very useful for our development projects but may also have wider market appeal. Daily updates of overnight bat activity may allow DOC or community groups to better target resources to areas where activity meets certain thresholds or allow researchers to identify hotspots where bats could be captured for population studies.

What is the DreamLab innovation programme?

If any member of staff has an idea or something they’d like to explore that isn’t necessarily related to their daily work, DreamLab will provide some funding and source people to help try it out. We hold an annual innovation competition, now in its fourth year, but ideas can be submitted to DreamLab at any point.

We currently have about 60 DreamLab projects underway and gain at least 40 annually. If initial testing looks promising, we’ll provide more funding. Most of the proposals end up being developed, which include many that you wouldn’t normally associate with an engineering company. Some of the AI tools that we use here at Tonkin + Taylor were funded through DreamLab.

Proposals often involve playing around with new technology, but not all involve digitisation. Some include supporting outcomes in circular economy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, sharing sustainability knowledge or updating old processes. It’s very easy in consultancy to just do the job the client has put forward. DreamLab helps us to do things outside the box that we can then offer to our clients or improve a process that we’d never have done otherwise such as the Bat Phone.

As DreamLab develops, we’re gaining a clearer idea of how to run it and are building a framework to ensure good ideas get traction. We’re also focusing on how the proposals fit with the business’ overall vision and strategic plan. Ideas can be left-field but ultimately you want to see whether they benefit where Tonkin + Taylor is going or create a new route that we want to explore. After four years, we’ve gained many useful things that are adding value to the business.

Digital enablement and Tonkin + Taylor – what does the future look like?

Digital enablement is our future. We live in a digital world. If we’re truly successful, digital will be almost non-existent because it’ll be so embedded into all our work. We’re trying to make every part of the process as efficient as possible, so it’ll just form part of who we are without any separation.

We’re a knowledge-based business and I see us getting to the point where all our knowledge – our tools and systems – is at the fingertips of all our engineers and scientists. We’ll be fully digitally enabled, whether that’s using AI, other tools, or Bat Phones. It’s a big but very positive change.

Connect with David Wyllie on LinkedIn

This article was brought to you in paid partnership with Tonkin + Taylor.