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Breakthrough in real-time tracking of orienteers

Posted on Thursday, April 1, 1999.

Following extensive research conducted by the Institute for Applied Physical Research (IAPR) it now seems possible that all competitors at this year's World Orienteering Championships in Scotland will be tracked in real time. This should provide even greater spectator interest.

The general principles of tracking technology are well understood, and the new system uses the established GPS satellite network. Scientists have managed to incorporate all of the necessary electronics into a 20kg unit, but this was still considered too heavy for each orienteer to carry. The breakthrough came when it was realised that the unit could be carried in some other way. The chosen approach is to mount the unit on a dog, which then follows the orienteer through the forest.

Whilst simple in principle, there have been many obstacles to overcome in the development of the system. The ideal dog needs to be fit enough to keep up with a world-class orienteer over the Scottish terrain, and must also have the ability to pick up a scent and relocate if it temporarily loses contact. Beagles seemed an obvious choice, but tests have shown a significant drawback: they have such short legs that they find it impossible to move at speed through the deep heather that is expected to be a feature of some of the Scottish areas.

Later tests made use of Irish Wolfhounds, but it was soon realised that this might lead to official complaints because of possible bias towards the Irish team. German Shepherds and Great Danes were rejected for similar reasons.

The research was led by Howard Orchard and Alberto Ximenes, already known to orienteers for their earlier work on magnetic field reversals. They recently explained the latest situation.

"We have settled on a cross between a greyhound (to provide speed) and a foxhound (for relocation). The only drawback is that they have a tendency to become unstable at high speed, because of the large weight of the tracking unit and the length of their legs. A major orienteering equipment supplier has being helping us to develop special shoes to improve grip, and this should resolve the problem."

"We are confident that the technology works. The only thing now holding us back is the availability of enough dogs. We are in the middle of a major breeding program, but it is still not certain that we will have the 300 dogs necessary in time for August."

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