Thursday, 20 February 2014

Two steps up for bat monitoring?

I've written before about my hope that the rescue and revitalisation of Titley Electronics (makers of Anabat) would result in a shake-up of the market for unattended monitoring equipment. With Titley and Wildlife Acoustics (makers of the Songmeter) battling for the marketplace the winners will be those of us who use their equipment. With remarkable symmetry both companies have looked at their existing offer, listened to customer feedback and both are launching ground-breaking new machines. Interestingly they are also swapping places in the cost stakes.

Wildlife Acoustics appear to have addressed a lot of the issues with their SM2BAT with their new SM3BAT. With a die-cast aluminium case it will be more robust than the previous machine. They have also addressed problems with cumbersome access and risk of letting water inside the unit. The control and screen are now on the outside of the case, making them more accessible and the batteries now slide into slots in the side of the machine. 

The new Songmeter SM3BAT from Wildlife Acoustics
(Photo copyright Wildlife Acoustics)

The Wildlife Acoustics approach of recording in ZCA (Analook) format as well as in compressed WAV (audio) format is strengthened by a massive increase in memory to a Terrabyte, allowing those large files plenty of room for a change. Another problem with the old SM2BAT was the vulnerability of the microphones and W.A. have a new and more robust microphone for the SM3BAT. They also claim an improvement in power consumption and there is no longer a need for an adaptor to use an external battery.

It all sounds very promising. The downside is that they have abandoned the £1000 including VAT price point to pay for the improvements and I understand the SM3BAT will market at £1500. The new microphones are also double the cost of the old ones at £200 each. A big increase, but maybe worth it?

Titley are countering by moving downmarket with their new Anabat Express. At just £500 each you could buy three of these machines for one SM3BAT (though the SM3BAT can record from two microphones concurrently, if required). 

The new Anabat Express
(Photo copyright Titley Electronics)

Compared with the older SD1 and SD2 Anabats the Express is very different and, like W.A. Titley have listened carefully to customer feedback. A key reason why people started buying SM2BATs in preference to Anabats was the the Anabat's lack of integral weatherproofing. The Express is built into a stout weatherproof case, screen-printed with camouflage. The case is little bigger than the original Anabat machines, making it rather smaller and neater than the SM3BAT. The older chunky Anabat microphones have given way to a new and smaller mic. Happily Titley have finally given up on CF memory cards, moving to the ubiquitous and smaller SD card (in fairness they had already done this with the Roostlogger).

Titley also claim a significant improvement on power consumption and the Express uses 4 AA batteries. Oddly in the SM3BAT W.A. have chosen to carry on using 4 large and heavy D cells.

This interior view of the Anabat Express, with AA batteries in place shows how small this low-cost machine is. 
(Photo copyright Titley Electronics)

The Express also has built in GPS for the first time. It's not really a hand-held unit, so the purpose of the GPS receiver is to allow the machine to calculate sunset and dawn times, making it possible to programme the machine to start and stop recording at times relative to these, rather than fixed times. This was always a strength of the SM2BAT, compared to the older Anabats, which require regular reprogramming through the season.

It's great to see both companies listening and innovating and it will be interesting to see what these two new machines are like in practice. W.A. have a habit of making equipment complex to use in the field, which is fine if you're a bit of a techno-geek, but more of a problem if you're just an average bat worker. Titley's previous machines have always been relatively user-friendly, though the manuals for their previous models have been unintelligible! Whether all these innovations deliver the goods remains to be seen. Happily both manufacturers have been kind enough to offer me machines to try out.

On paper it looks like W.A. are aiming for the gold standard with the SM3BAT, though it's costly and more visible, therefore potentially vulnerable when left in the field. The Anabat Express, with its low price-point could be bought in quantity and its small size and camouflaged appearance makes it potentially less vulnerable. If both machines live up to their promise it could be a case of "horses for courses". For long-term placement on a wind farm Met mast the SM3BAT could be ideal. For large scale deployment over a site the Anabat Express could fit the bill. Time will tell...

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