Putting SIMs on seals - SMRU and Vodafone announce partnership

10 December 2015

The Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) and Vodafone UK are working together to learn more about the rapid decline in many UK seal populations by fitting them with mobile phone-based tracking tags.

seal with smart tag

Seal with smart tag. Copyright SMRU/Vodafone.

Scientists at SMRU, funded by NERC and based at the University of St Andrews, already use Vodafone SIM cards in the trackers, which attach harmlessly to the animals' backs. But the official partnership will give them better access to the UK phone operator's network.

As well as illuminating seal behaviour - essential if we're to protect them from the threats they face - the transmitters also provide information on ocean conditions. They turn the seals into something like much cheaper research vessels, although admittedly ones with minds of their own that don't always go where scientists would like.

The partnership will mean more reliable network coverage and faster transmission of data. It will also give access to Vodafone's partner networks, making it easier to use SMRU's tracking devices anywhere in the world and control them all from any computer. The scientists aim to produce around 100 tags a year, both for their own use and for sale to other researchers abroad, so easy operation anywhere is a major advantage.

Dr Bernie McConnell, SMRU's deputy director, said:

Through the combination of technology and science, SMRU and Vodafone can help businesses and governments accelerate economic growth and responsible environmental management. The marine data collected is fundamental in balancing the health of the sea with society's need to harvest food and energy from it.

Transmitters attached to the seals will now beam data back to shore by connecting to Vodafone's M2M - 'machines to machines' - network, which is designed to link up everything from cars and smart fridges to heart monitors in the emerging 'internet of things'.

Emer Boulter, Vodafone UK's head of corporate responsibility, said:

Vodafone is providing its M2M technology and consultancy to help Bernie and the SMRU team to improve their data gathering and so help shape better-informed policy decisions and better stewardship of the seas. We are delighted to partner with SMRU, and hope that our technology and resources can go some way in continually improving environmental assessments in order to protect local sea mammal populations.

SMRU researchers use wireless tags to track seals as they go about their business around the UK coast, keeping tabs on where they go and what they do. The tags are no bigger than a mobile phone and connect to base when their host comes to the surface to breathe. They can stand depths of up to 200 metres and last a few months before dropping off harmlessly during the seal's annual moult.

Their findings will help conserve some of the dwindling harbour seal populations around the UK. In some places numbers of this seal, one of our two resident species, have declined by up to 90% in the last decade. SMRU provides advice to government on seal conservation, and to the offshore renewable energy industry about how to mitigate the effects of construction and operation on marine wildlife.

Vodafone and SMRU hope to start using the M2M network to track seals around the Northern Islands and western Scotland in spring 2016, in a project backed by the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage. They also plan to work together at the phone operator's research labs to find ways to improve the speed and efficiency of transmitting data to shore. Seals only surface to breathe for a short time, so lots of information needs to be transmitted quickly without using up too much battery power and shortening the device's useful life.

To find out more, you can watch a short film about the Connected Seals project - external link.

Further information

Tom Marshall
NERC media office
01793 442593