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GX help students listen to wildlife

25 November 2021

Environmental consultancy Wild Connect saw a need to develop a robust audio monitoring device that both professional and amateur conservationists could use. A device that is valuable to science in the area of eco-acoustics and a tool that can help re-engage the public with the natural world.

In a major interdisciplinary science and arts collaboration, FE educator Coleg y Cymoedd, Semiconductor Innovator Newport Wafer Fab (Nexperia Newport since 5th July 2021), and Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult (CSA Catapult) joined Wild Connect, to create the Biophone.

They decided that a pilot study should be undertaken, where the device was put through its paces in extreme conditions – those being Wales, with its wet and cold landscape and Namibia with its scorching dry deserts. The device had to function continuously for twenty-day field cycles, as the wildlife conservation partners did not want sites frequently disturbed.

Having created a concept version, the instigators sought the electronic engineering skills of GX, who have long experience of taking proven ideas to fully working and scalable production runs.

Multiple Biophones were assembled by students at the college, and upon delivery to the field, were deployed and managed by aspiring engineers. A unique part of the project is that Biophones can be assembled by anyone, enabling citizen scientists, as well as parts being available off the shelf or manufacturable by a 3D printer.

Design by GX

“The Biophone had to be capable of recording the full range of sounds, not just in the audible range that which we hear, but also in ultrasonic sounds made by insects and small animals and in infrasonic sounds emitted by larger creatures like elephants and whales!” recalls Richard Bebbington, GX’s mechatronic engineer. “We designed and built a fully functioning mechanical engineering prototype, then assessed its capabilities, before outlining a final design brief, that the students would follow and build”.

Fit for purpose

Throughout the course of product development Richard and his colleagues at GX kept in mind the harsh treatment each unit would encounter, the potential for water ingress on exposed Welsh hillsides, rough handling when in transit, extreme heat, dust storms and even the attention of curious baboons in Namibia - who are known for their dexterity and aggressive attacks.

The design team at GX opted for a solution that was a simple housing with waterproof membranes that kept water and dust out but let sound get unobstructed to the mics.

“It was a really interesting project to work on,” says Richard. “From the start we needed to think how the design could develop and showcase student skills – including electrical component preparation, soldering wires, crimping connectors and casement customising. To ensure success, we drew up a step by step set of instructions to build the fully functioning units.”

One of the co-ordinators of the project was Iestyn Llŷr, a Senior Embedded Software Engineer at CSA Catapult; "This is a great example of Welsh companies working together to explore how a conceptual idea can be commercially developed. CSA Catapult aims to bridge the gap between research and industry within the compound semiconductor world, as well as inspiring the next generation of engineers through our Skills Academy and STEM programme. This project showcases the innovative ideas of aspiring engineers and how they are solving issues that will impact us all.”

Outcomes for the students

Engineering, Creative Arts and Media students from Coleg y Cymoedd were able to benefit from the project by learning valuable skills, and by gaining the opportunity to work on a real-world project. This was especially valuable to the students in a year where covid had cancelled most industry placements.

Proof of concept

Over the coming weeks the completed units will be delivered to Namibia, where they will be deployed and managed by Save the Rhino Trust and to locations across Wales. Once deployed they will begin collecting audio data, which will be used as a means of assessing habitats and as a tool to engage communities with the sounds of their wildlife.

About CSA Catapult

Compound Semiconductor Applications (CSA) Catapult is focused on bringing compound semiconductor applications to life in three key areas: the road to Net Zero, future telecoms and intelligent sensing. 

CSA Catapult is a Not for Profit organisation headquartered in South Wales.  It is focused on three technology areas: Power Electronics, RF & Microwave and Photonics.  As well as the three technology areas, CSA Catapult is also working in Advanced Packaging for these high-power innovations.

The next wave of emerging applications will have an enormous impact on our lives.  Compound semiconductors will enable a host of new and exciting applications in the electrification of transport, clean energy, defence and security and digital communications markets.

CSA Catapult exists to help the UK compound semiconductor industry grow and collaborates across the UK and internationally. 

About Compound Semiconductors

Semiconductors are at the heart of almost all modern electronic devices. Silicon semiconductors have widespread commercial applications, but this technology has its limits.

Compound semiconductors combine two or more elements to create capabilities that cannot be achieved with conventional silicon devices, delivering performance improvements in power, speed and signal quality.  This makes them ideal to use in areas such as energy efficiency, electrified and autonomous vehicles, mobile applications, new smart-sensing devices for the Internet of Things and 5G applications.

About Catapult

The Catapult network provides world-leading facilities designed to transform the UK’s capability for innovation in specific areas and help drive future economic growth.  Established by Innovate UK, which provides funding and support for business innovation as part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Catapults provide access to expert technical capabilities, equipment, and other resources required to take innovative ideas from concept to reality. Catapults are a national asset – no matter where the physical HQ is located they are here to work with businesses and academic institutions around the UK.

About Wild Connect

Wild Connect is a partnership of seasoned lovers of nature. Between them they have major credits in the worlds of science, entertainment, education and conservation, having dedicated years of effort into spreading awareness on issues faced by nature and communities. A key strategy is to engage citizens in the service of the environment - and bring people to an understanding of the issues inherent - in climate change, nature’s decline, community resilience, and mental wellbeing. 

Their key idea… reconnecting with nature is the best means of changing outcomes for both people and the environment. 

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