Laying the tracks for telemetry

Richard Huempfner reflects on the early days of radio telemetry, how the industry has evolved and stories from throughout the journey
October 13, 2023

Advanced Telemetry Systems co-founder Richard Huempfner knows a few things about entering uncharted territory. From researching in Antarctica to starting a company, his career path is worthy of a book—and in fact, is recounted in one: Carolyn Ukura Kuechle’s Animal Tracking Signals: Stories of the Development of Radiotelemetry in Minnesota.

Now, with the launch of the newest Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve project, Eyes on the Wild, which uses camera traps to generate images that are translated into a rich source of data about the station’s animal inhabitants, Richard’s stories provide even more insight into the evolution of tracking wildlife.

Just 50 years ago, Cedar Creek was the only round-the-clock telemetry operating system in the world, tracking animal locations using collars and transmitters that sent signals to the station’s two towers at 45-second intervals. Due to the short lifespan of batteries, collars needed be changed several times a year, which meant capturing—and recapturing—animals. The sheer amount of data being generated meant that it was difficult for researchers to handle all of these tasks themselves, which is where Richard came in. 

On his first day as a field research assistant in 1968, Richard discovered that his new role was prone to taking unexpected turns as he joined two colleagues in wrestling a radio-collared raccoon to the ground as it bit clean through the toe box of his rubber boot. Ultimately, Richard came out of the encounter unscathed, although as he recounted in Kuechle’s book, “Being the first day on the job, I wondered what I was doing working with these wild biologists.”

It didn’t take long before Richard was one of those wild biologists himself, enrolling in a graduate program to study telemetry and getting up close and personal with creatures from ruffed grouse and great horned owls to deer and other animals. “He came home many a night smelling like skunk,” his wife, Judi, remembers with a laugh.

In 1975, Richard even traveled to Antarctica to assist in a University of Minnesota study estimating the numbers of Weddell seals on the Ross Ice Shelf where his duties ranged from manually installing tracking collars on seals’ hind flippers to observing the animals in footage from underwater cameras.

Richard spent years working with telemetry at Cedar Creek, so when grant funding dried up and it came time for his next endeavor, Richard didn’t stray far from what he knew. He took on a new role in the field of telemetry: this time as an entrepreneur. He joined forces with three colleagues who had worked as biologists, electrical technicians and electrical engineers at Cedar Creek, each chipping in $3,500 to form Advanced Telemetry Systems (ATS), which began operating out of a spare room in Richard and Judi’s home. Richard became the company’s first president. 

Because radio telemetry is far from a one-size-fits-all approach, much of Richard’s career centered around finding unique solutions for the variety of species clients tracked. Methods included collars, implants, ear and tail tags, with Richard recall

ing projects involving a range of creatures from salmon and elk to turkey to snowshoe hare. 

As technology advanced—bringing with it longer-lasting batteries, smaller and lighter equipment, and—of course—computers, GPS, and Internet—so did the market for such research. Soon Advanced Telemetry Systems grew large enough to move out of the spare room into a 3,000-square-foot headquarters in Isanti, which has grown to 24,000 square feet today. 

Today the company prides itself on founding the “first successful automated animal tracking system,” offers more than 400 models of transmitters and has clients across the globe who use the technology. Meanwhile, Richard is happily retired and enjoys recounting his days in the field when he isn’t working in his in-home wood shop or bird watching out the front window of his Isanti, Minnesota home. 

But now with Eyes on the Wild making headlines, Richard’s stories underscore just how much the field of animal tracking has changed in just six short decades—and how quickly the market for such services continues to grow. 

Forest Isbell, associate director at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, notes that camera traps are no replacement for radio telemetry’s ability to track movement patterns, but instead provide complementary population and species information. Going forward, both methods can be used together to create a fuller picture than either could alone. And so it all comes full circle with animal tracking continuing on at Cedar Creek, the very same spot