Blackhawk Tracking Systems

October 2017

Tracking technology used to help save lives on farms.

An estimated 400,000 quad bikes and side-by-side vehicles operate in New Zealand, and Australia. Every year thousands of workers and recreational riders are injured while using them, hundreds seriously. 

Tragically, every year also brings its tally of quad bike-related deaths. These vehicles are often operated in remote areas or rugged terrain where mobile phone coverage can be patchy or non-existent. Help can be a long time coming, if it comes at all. 

From 2006 to 2012, there were 29 work-related quad bike fatalities and 260 serious harm notifications to Worksafe New Zealand. 

New Zealand global technology company, Blackhawk Tracking Systems, has developed a Farm Angel system for quad bikes and side-by-side vehicles widely used on New Zealand farms. This sends out an automatic alert to emergency services or pre-arranged contacts if an accident happens. The technology can also be used to log driver behaviour and can be fitted to other machinery including tractors, diggers, bulldozers and utes. GPS satellite tracking tracks vehicles’ location, even in remote locations with no cellphone reception. 

Blackhawk was launched 10 years ago, initially making and marketing a disabling and tracking device fitted to vehicles for quick recovery if they are stolen. A Farm Angel product for quad bikes and side-by-side vehicles is now saving lives, automatically raising the alarm when there is an accident, improving communication on farms and tracking driver behaviour. 

Expansion into the rural sector was prompted by an approach by Blue Wing Honda, New Zealand importer and distributor of Honda motorcycles and parts. Three years ago the company queried whether Blackhawk technology could be adapted for its rural customers, who were too frequently being injured or dying in ATV accidents. 

Focus groups of farmers suggested to Blackhawk that what they needed was a beacon that could work beyond cellphone range, could detect rollovers, tracked location and would not drain motorbike batteries. Optional add-on services requested were the ability to send or receive text messages where there was no cellphone reception and an alert if a vehicle had not returned by the end of the day. 

Blackhawk CEO and chairman, Keith Oliver, said the company built all these features and more into their Farm Angel devices, launched on the market in 2016 after 18 months of development and trials. When an accident occurs, a crash alert and Google map location is automatically sent out to listed contacts such as family and employers. Alternatively, the driver can trigger an alert if assistance is needed for any reason, for example a medical emergency. 

Emergency services are not directly alerted, unless the purchaser has previously requested a 24hour/7day/week emergency response centre be included in the list of contacts. This follows farmer feedback that it should be possible to have a text conversation about the type of help needed with family or neighbours so they can deliver a rapid and appropriate level of response rather than automatically dispatching a costly rescue helicopter. 

Devices also track driver behaviour including acceleration, speed and tilting so anything unsafe is identified and addressed. 

Data recorded so far from more than 30,000 quad and side-by-side rider days on remote New Zealand farms and Canadian ski-fields pointed to a serious incident or rollover rate of one every 3400 days, Keith said. On steep terrain, the rate was higher with inattention the most common reason for mishaps. With an estimated 300,000 quad bikes across New Zealand and Australia, there were probably around 90 potentially serious incidents each day, most going unreported. 

Tracking was revealing a lot of unreported rollover near misses, possibly because staff were embarrassed to tell their bosses that they had slipped up, said Keith. Yet these events were an opportunity to understand farm conditions and driver behaviour, potentially avoiding repeats and preventing serious accidents or deaths by driver training. 

Corporate farmers such as Tatua milk producer and processor, and Government-owned Landcorp are early adopters of Blackhawk devices, recognising the opportunity to improve health and safety performance and compliance. Auckland Council had installed devices on its regional parks fleet of quad bikes and tractors, and John Deere tractor dealer Cervus Equipment includes the technology in maintenance and service workers’ vehicles. They also on-sell the service to their own customers under the “Cervus-Connect” brand. 

Uptake had been slower on family-scale farms, seemingly because of farmers’ belief accidents wouldn’t happen to them. Yet, minute-by-minute data being collected in New Zealand and Canada suggested that accident rates on corporate and privately-owned farms were similar if not identical, Keith says. He sees the next opportunity in the agricultural training sector, using vehicle data to target driver mentoring and training. 

While the company’s main market is New Zealand, it is trialing its products in Australia and on Canadian ski-fields. New Zealand was unusual in that ATVs were mostly used in the agricultural industry, said Keith. In most other countries, their main use was recreational yet statistics showed accident statistics were identical. 

Blackhawk launched the product at National Fieldays in 2015 when the very first sales were made into the market. 

The starting price for a unit is around $850, depending on how many are purchased, plus $1/day for the emergency alert services. The app to run the system can be downloaded for free but extra charges are added for features such as text communications via satellite and driver behavior monitoring. 

Craig Barker farms a steep sheep and beef farm at Mokai in the King Country, where there is no cellphone reception. He’s been super safety-conscious since a day’s mustering rugged country on quad bikes with his father, Chris Barker, went seriously wrong two and a half years ago. His father’s bike hit a lump on a steep slope and rolled, pinning him beneath causing broken ribs and a herniated stomach. Plus the muzzle of a rifle stored in the gun-rack smashed Chris’s glasses, forcing a lens behind his eye. 

Craig managed to lift the bike off his father and activate the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) attached to his belt, successfully calling in a rescue helicopter. The accident highlighted that if a driver was alone when a motorbike tipped or rolled in this remote country, they might be unable to activate a beacon and the outcome could be tragic. 

The family went the next step of fitting bikes with Blackhawk Farm Angel devices, which would automatically alert key contacts if there is an accident, with no need for manual activation. Father and son also wear tags that they can press to send out an alert within 10 metres of their vehicle. 

It was an investment that (unfortunately) soon paid off. 

In November 2016 Craig was the passenger on a side-by-side, being driven slowly along a flat track by a 16-year-old trainee farm worker. The young driver spotted a pig on a hillside and veered off the road, so suddenly that there was no chance for Craig to grab the wheel and the vehicle flipped and fell down an 8-metre bank. 

The farm worker was thrown out on the first roll while Craig stayed with the bike to the end. 

“This young guy was frantic, I was lying unconscious and he thought he’d killed me,” Craig recalls. Automatic emergency alerts sent a text and email to Craig’s parents saying the bike had rolled, was still upside-down and giving its location. They telephoned a near neighbour who travelled to the site then returned home and called an ambulance. 

Meanwhile, Craig, regained consciousness and activated the EPIRB which called up a helicopter. “We were both wearing helmets which probably saved my life,” says Craig who spent close to a week in hospital and six weeks off work after fracturing vertebrae in his neck. “I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt though and definitely would have been better off with one.” 

Craig’s stepmother downloads driver data onto her cellphone when in reception, detecting and following up on any unsafe behaviour. “For anyone working alone, I would suggest that for a one-off cost plus monthly fee, this technology gives you peace of mind and may save lives,” says Craig. “Also, with the emphasis on health and safety compliance today, it’s a no-brainer.”