TABER (Technology for Animal Biology and Environmental Research) is the tag team. We are a group of engineers and biologists working together to create new tags that can be worn by small animals to record their positions and as much other information as possible about their lives. Spearheaded by Winkler from EEB, the TABER team works closely with faculty in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (especially Joe Skovira, Al Molnar, and Bruce Land). We employ two professional engineers (Rich Gabrielson and Steve Powell) who collectively bring many decades of engineering experience to the design of our tag and receiver systems, and we collaborate with Rob MacCurdy (ECE, UMass) and his students in tag development. The fundamental set of building blocks available for designing new tags is constantly changing and improving. We keep abreast of these developments by monitoring a great number of web sites and industry publications and by word of mouth with colleagues world-wide. The evaluation of new or alternative components must be done judiciously, and we try to take the plunge and actually order a new part only when it offers the prospect of solving a persistent problem or taking us into new design space. We devote a great deal of attention to producing tags that are less than 1 g in mass.
TABER has a weekly all-hands meeting in which we discuss the current projects and obstacles encountered in each. At the very least, the meetings are a round robin discussion of how each of the students and engineers present fared on the tasks that they had agreed to the previous week. This is an essential part of project management, but the really interesting and rewarding parts happen when the activities, goals and backgrounds of the team members meld into a group discussion to solve a problem or daydream about an application. This happens often. And Winkler delights in being the dumb biologist who has to stop proceedings once in a while and ask the engineers to explain something. The TABER crew has some really good teachers, and I treasure the mini-primers that I have received on everything from Ohm’s law and antenna theory to how transistors and the latest types of memory work. Because we are a small group, we do not need to develop a complicated organizational chart or procedures.
One of the great advantages of our systems is that they are very small and thus relatively simple. A student can get to know the hardware and software for both transmitter and receiver in a single term’s immersion, and everyone on the team can thus be learning a great deal about entire systems as they are being developed and refined. And relatively few engineering students have the chance to work on a student project team that is routinely producing products that are being used in the real world by biologists exploring new frontiers in the movements and ecologies of small animals in the field.
So, if you are an engineering or biology student with an interest in getting to know hardware and software development with real-world applications, come give TABER a try!