LoRaWAN vessels GPS tracking.
My first-ever conservation project – finally!

Finally my first-ever conservation tech project

It all started with a moment of self-reflection, leading me down to the path of conservation tech. This is when Alasdair and his intriguing Arribada project came into my life. Convincing him I was serious about teaming up took few months of “charming” nagging, but after all that there it is – my first-ever conservation gig! Truth to be told Cyprus is not a very exotic destination, but this doesn’t mean that the story should be boring. It is spiced up with mainly positive trial results plus few unexpected moments like the COVID-19 rules bending(details classified), some strange GSM Cyprus regulations and literally losing my sense of smell. The journey ends with the famous Cyprus turtles chase and some deep water solo climbing. A good beginning of my conservation tech career.

Research and development

Let’s start at the beginning. The SPOT project needs a cost-effective way to track small boats at a very long distance(think the entire north Cyprus coast). I don’t fully understand the right incentives there. but it has something to do with government regulations for fishing.

Robin and Damla from the SPOT team gave us the details and I started the research. I am focused on re-using open-source tech as it cuts costs and time. Plus the rewarding feeling of sharing knowledge is nice. The perfect mix for conservation tech where low budgeting is usually not a suggestion. After two months of Googling, I am going with Chirpstack for the data collection and Traccar to visualise it. For the hardware – re-using the Smart Parks GPS tag as the sender and the Lorix one as the receiver. Next, I dive into coding and configurations. With my awesome coding skills – two years later I am done! Just kidding – in few weeks it is trial-ready.

The apocalyptic trials

The idea for the trials is simple – place the antenna somewhere high in the nearby mountain (elevation is the key for better range) and drive around with the car to check the signal. With the complete city lockdown(thanks, COVID) this turns into a scene from an apocalypse movie. Picture this – empty streets, roadblocks, and I drive around to pick up a signal – just like in the “I Am Legend” movie. Well not exactly, but I am keeping this dramatic comparison.

The day ends well, I reach 30km which is the border of the roadblocks. Happy results! A quick look at Google Maps reveals that North Cyprus is rocky so there are options for more elevation to improve the range.

Cyprus trials

Then, just like in a movie we transition to the next scene from my Balcony in Cyprus – obviously post-COVID lockdown.

The first interesting moment is when I am sorting out the SIM card for the remote access to the system. The SIM card needs to be registered in the council or it stops working after 90 days. Really odd government rule. Some “logical” politics involved I guess? 

With this sorted I head to the harbour to install everything. This is the day I literally lost my sense of smell. The stink of fish is progressively amplified by the hot sun. Some boat owners need a hygiene lesson! The tactic is – hold your breath, enter the boat, strip a wire, exit – repeat. Few hours later it is time to test it! Well not so fast – need to sort out the electricity first! Someone knocked down a nearby electricity pole so we have zero voltage. The team is resourceful and in just an hour finds an inverter and a 12v battery. We are back online!

The first boat goes into the sea and we eagerly watch the screen for updates. I am sweating and I am offered some water. I am looking at something that looks like a “shot” of water. Literally 100ml. Funny and tragic. It is fun to drink from a square plastic cup, but also annoying to be part of the usual case of single-use plastic pollution. Anyway, the day ends well and the system is working. I monitor it in the next few days and it all looks good. The maximum recorded range is 13km. That is the maximum these boats travel.

Note the high-tech aluminum foil that we use to reset the trackers
Note the high-tech aluminum foil that we use to reset the trackers
The unmatched tech nirvana to see that it actually works.
The unmatched tech nirvana to see that it actually works.

With the system working it is time to do a quick demo with the SPOT team and show them how to use it. We are already discussing expanding the system to cover multiple harbours. There is a cell tower in the nearby mountain with a 500m elevation so moving the antenna there should increase the range drastically. Sevket puts an approval request in motion. Thanks Sevket!

The night watch

The work is over so it is time to become tourists. Poly(another adventurer and a friend) joins me on this trip so we spend the next few days exploring. Cyprus is famous with its sea turtles so we want to see them. Robin from the SPOT team plays a good host and allows us to join the nighttime patrol. It turns out a very interesting experience. Witnessing few hatchings and having quite educational convos with the volunteers – I didn’t know that turtles are so small and soft when they hatch. Another sad fact is that only few of the hundreds survive. Can’t remember the exact numbers, but a very small percentage.

Two days later we had to leave. Just few hours before the flight I randomly see a FB event for deep water solo climbing. Turns out not very difficult and dramatic, but the perfect ending to this journey!

YouTube video

The nerd details

Balena is used as the host operating system and all apps run in containers. Traccar and Chirpstack run on the Rpi itself which is directly connected to the Lorix so that data collection is not reliant on the internet.

  • 4-Port Gigabit PoE Switch (provides power to Lorix and the router)
  • Raspberry Pi 4
  • Raspberry Pi 4 PoE HAT
  • LorixOne LoRaWAN Gateway with 5dbi antenna
  • MikroTik SXT LTE6 Router (4G Cellular)
  • 4 x Open Collar LoRa / GPS Asset Trackers (rechargeable)
  • Traccar
  • Chirpstack

UPDATE: unbelivable new range

A month later thanks to Şevket the antenna is moved to the cellular tower at 500m elevation. I can’t wait to find out the new the new range! Few days later he jumps on his motorbike and the unbelievable happens – the signal reaches 70km! With this new range, 2-3 antennas will be enough to cover the entire North Cyprus.

UPDATE: the trackers are dead

Another few months pass by monitoring it and to our surprise most of the trackers stop working. Sevkets visits the harbour to find out that the salt water corroded the open tag terminals. In theory, these are only for troubleshooting and firmware updates, but for some reason, the corision damaged the trackers. This setback is not so important as it can be fixed with a waterproof enclosure and the trials already proved that it has the range we need so the next step is to scale it while trying to reduce its cost.

We decided to add one more antenna and trial few more trackers. The idea is to so scale it to few hundred to cover the whole coast so need to decide on the best combination for cost, range and reliability. I am occupied with other projects so I bring Tudor to help. He gets up to speed quickly and updates the software to support the new trackers. We also decided to move the software to the cloud to avoid the need for the Rpi. There are pros and cons to that: less maintenance and easier to scale, but dependent on the internet connection.

Currently, all new trackers are delivered to the SPOT team and waiting for their assistance to do the final trials.