Bath student develops GPS-enabled baton for charity organisation

Matt Silver’s GPS-enabled baton is set to track and record a re-enactment of Shackleton’s history-making 1916 Antarctic voyage, whilst promoting the charitable work of Armed Forces charity The Baton.

Matt Silver with the Alexandra Shackleton Matt Silver, an electronic engineering with space science and technology MEng student at the University of Bath has spent his summer developing a GPS-enabled baton that will travel the world raising awareness of the reality of life for service personnel and their families in the British Armed Forces.

This is the primary mission of charity The Baton [new window], which uses the handle of a military stretcher that was brought back from Camp Bastion, Afghanistan in 2009 as its symbol. One of the charity’s trustees, WO Barry Gray RM decided he wanted to take the baton and its message with him on his latest expedition - a re-enactment of Shackleton’s history-making 1916 Antarctic voyage [new window], which will use 1916 technology, food and equipment to recreate the legendary journey, which has never been successfully repeated.

The charity thought it would be a great idea to have the ability to track and record the journeys of the baton and to use this information as part of a bigger programme of communication, education and interest. The baton has previously been on expeditions to the Himalayan mountaintops and the North Pole amongst others. The hope is to be able to not only track and record this expedition, but many others in the future.

Matt’s technical challenge

Matt had been working on a GPS related project during the third year of his course and so he was asked if he’d be willing to take on the challenge. His goal was to fit an electronic device inside the stretcher handle turned baton, to enable it to be tracked via the GPS.

“It has involved researching many different ways to achieve this, including various devices, antenna, data retrieval and power options to come up with a solution that is relatively low cost, but also elegant and effective,” he says.

The final solution

The GPS baton and its technical innards Matt’s final solution was a waterproof GPS data logger with storage for about 200,000 locations (32Mbit), with a lithium battery power supply that is estimated to last about a month at a GPS log rate of once an hour. The device has also had to utilise a custom-made external GPS antenna, as the GPS signals are too weak to pass trough the thick aluminium of the baton.

“I have also developed a website for the GPS data to be uploaded by the expedition members at intervals of their choice or at the end, it can then be displayed and visible to others in an embedded Google Earth gadget format. The website also includes additional info about the GPS baton device etc,” he says.

Unique problems to overcome

The main problem Matt faced was finding a device that was small enough to fit inside the very limited space and shape of the baton, but that could also perform well. He also had to rise to the time challenge, as the device had to be ready for the expedition’s launch.

“I have been working on this since the start of July and have nearly completed fitting an adapted wildlife/sea bird GPS data logging device to the baton,” he says.

“I have completed fitting the external antenna to the baton, connecting it to the electronics inside the baton and completed sealing and waterproofing the device.

I have also done a few tests with the device to make sure it is functioning correctly. One thing I haven't been able to test is the lifetime of the battery as I have only had about a week to test it, which is obviously not long enough to test battery life of one month,” he notes.

High points for Matt have been the opportunity to meet some of the people undertaking this expedition as well as having the opportunity to become involved himself.

“Also getting the chance to see the replica James Caird boat called the Alexandra Shackleton, which really helps me to imagine what it will be and was like to undertake such a voyage,” he says.

What he’s learnt from this project

Matt feels he has learnt so much from this project, including a lot about the different parts and modules that make these types of devices as well as the various data formats GPS can take.

“I learnt a lot while researching ways to keep this device powered for the duration of the expedition,” he notes. “For example I looked into kinetic and solar powering options, but both proved unfeasible. In the end the best solution to this was to have a 2000mAh rechargeable lithium battery and a GPS log rate of one hour and powering down the device in-between logs to enable the battery to last one month - the maximum estimated length of the expedition.

“I think I have gained a lot from this, not only something for my CV that is different, but also lots of technical knowledge and experience in getting a device like this working in such a custom scenario. It has also given me the opportunity to learn how to create websites from scratch in HTML,” he adds.