THE PENGUIN PROJECT: RFID Technology Development 

RFID in Antarctica

A penguin crossed over an electronic weighbridge in Antarctica in December 1994. The penguin had an implanted RFID tag, and the weighbridge datalogger at that moment recorded its identity, weight, the time, and its direction of travel.

Watching this event from nearby, I was pleased to witness the result of a technology development project that had begun some 15 years before.

In November 1978, I had received a call from a group who wanted something to implant in a horse, preferably by hypodermic injection, to deter fraud in thoroughbred horse management.

At my first meeting with this group, I scribbled a drawing of a tiny IC chip connected to a tiny coil, in a cylindrical shape.

The coil would provide power to the chip by induction from an external energizer-reader, the chip would contain an ID code and modulate the code out to the reader by varying the loading on the coil.

Within four months we had the first working prototypes of implantable integrated circuit ID tags for animals. The first hybrid-circuit prototypes were implanted in horses - and read externally by a handheld reader - in June 1979.

The original venture group ran out of money, but the idea was further developed independently by a would-be investor in 1980. The RFID products were eventually developed and manufactured by 1984.

 I became involved again with the development of the technology in 1986 by selling the patent on the original invention, and then directing the development of the RFID product line for AVID veterinary ID products. I managed the project engineering and implementation, which was distributed at numerous locations in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Now, implantable RFID for animals has become a global industry involving wildlife, valuable animals, herd animals, pets and fish. Industrial uses of RFID technology span the globe and touch most industry sectors.

Some Antarctic scientists doing penguin research wondered if we could make an RFID fixture which would identify and weigh penguins on their way into and out of their breeding colonies, to determine by weight how much food they were bringing in to their young.

We made a solar powered computerized weighbridge with RFID reader, electronic eyes, an electronic scale. It was designed to withstand the rigors of the Antarctic seashore and traversal by many thousands of pairs of penguin feet. I wondered "How are they going to service it out there?" And shortly thereafter I was traveling with Nat Polish on a C-130 transport, heading south from New Zealand to Scott Base in Antarctica.

We spent two days in Survival Training (scaling ice cliffs on ropes, climbing up volcanic "scree", measuring the depth of sea ice, and sleeping in an igloo which we built ourselves), then we loaded the weighbridges into a helicopter and flew over icy terrain to Cape Bird.

We carried the equipment to the penguin colonies and set it up in a polar tent. In the next few days, Nat and I had a "de-bugging" session which resembled a Star Trek episode.

Imagine our satisfaction when the first penguin walked over the bridge, got ID'd, weighed and recorded into the datalogging system at the Cape Bird beach. Now in 1997 we have completed three trips to Antarctica, each time improving the system's design and performance, and last year deploying weighbridges at three remote locations on Ross Island. This project report shows that we at BTC will go to the ends of the Earth to complete YOUR project, if that is what it takes!

Michael Beigel
June, 1997



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