First Contact with the Problem


It was a pleasant but quite ordinary afternoon in mid August when the phone rang. A gentleman identified himself as Ian Strange then went on to explain that someone had recommended that Boa Systems might be able to help him. "I don't know anything about you, what exactly do you do?" I've always struggled to encapsulate that answer in a few words, so I started "Boa Systems provides mainly electronic and software design services for industrial control, monitoring and product design", I paused sensing the message was wrong, "In short, we solve problems for people".

A slight hesitancy was replaced with a cheerful reply "Good, because I've got a problem for you, I want to count penguins". At first I thought of the ever-popular chocolate biscuit, "No, birds" came the reply. This just had to be a wind-up.

Mr Strange went on to explain that he lives in the Falkland Islands where he manages a breeding colony for Rockhopper Penguins, and he needed to assess the population.

OK, so I had to take this seriously. But I've seen Rockhoppers on the television, they come ashore en masse, squabble and are quite happy to push and shove. What could we do? Fortunately Mr Strange had foreseen many of the problems and, with his knowledge of the birds, was able to put forward solutions to cope with the limitations that any affordable counting system was going to impose.

Firstly the colony is a little unusual in that it is on a cliff top that has only one access to the sea, up a narrow gully. This gully could be artificially narrowed to ensure that the birds came up in single file. The birds could be separated by placing a small barrier or a step in the gully to make sure that they only came through one at a time.

A subsequent meeting laid down the other important criteria such as the working environment and the need for a car battery as the power supply. A quotation was produced by Boa, which detailed the specification as discussed. Shortly after this we received an order and work was to commence immediately. It was already too late to catch the start of the breeding season at the end of September, but if final delivery to the Falklands was early enough in the breeding season maximum use could be made of the new counter. We set ourselves a target of six weeks from order to delivery. But was this achievable?


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