Now you’re going to have to give me a bit of latitude here, as this isn’t something that I’d normally be talking about on this blog. However, it is vaguely gadget-related, and there’s also virtually no coverage of this topic on t’interweb so you’ll have to indulge me.
My dad is well into his pigeon racing. Always has been, always will be. However, he does enjoy a good gadget and he’s just bought something to try and bring his – and everyone else’s – pigeon racing kicking and screaming into the 21st century (or at the very least, the late 1990s).
The gadget in question is an electronic timing system, or ETS. For those of you who know nowt about pigeon racing, the deal is that you put your birds, along with hundreds of others, onto a lorry which transports them to a predetermined release point. They all get simultaneously released, and the first one home is the winner. Obviously, every pigeon has a slightly different distance to fly to get home, so there’s a lot of complex calculations to be done to work out exactly who the winner is, but you get the drift, yes?
Okay then. Not wanting to go into too much detail (that’s not exactly my point here) but the old-fashioned method involved lots of writing by hand, little rubber rings, wind-up clocks and old blokes with calculators. Not exactly high tech. So this new system – called the Unikon, and made by German company Deister – aims to streamline the whole process. It’s quite clever but not without its foibles, so I’m going to document how it works, and hopefully provide some instructions to help others.
Firstly – the equipment. It consists of a club system, used for marking pigeons, and a home system for the pigeon fancier (daft name) to use at his or her loft. Here’s a pic of the club system:
So what’s that on the right hand side? Is that a… wait… no it can’t be. Is that a PARALLEL PRINTER?! Indeed it is. See, I told you this was a bit 1990s. The box with the number keys in the middle is the master club clock and the thing on the left is the unit for scanning the pigeons.
So how do you “scan” a pigeon exactly? Well this isn’t Mission Impossible-style retina scanning or anything – it’s a bit simpler. You put a plastic ring containing an RFID chip onto the leg of each pigeon. This chip has a unique alphanumeric code embedded in it which can’t be altered. Here are the rings:
So the RFID ring goes on one leg, and on the other leg the pigeon has its association ring – which has a number on it which is registered to a particular fancier (in the photo below, the association ring is on the right). This ring is put on the bird when it’s a baby, and subsequently can never be removed without destroying the ring.
In order to link these two rings together (figuratively speaking), you use a piece of software whereby you list all the association ring numbers belonging to that person and then upload them to the fancier’s personal clock. This is done using a PC and a USB cable. Once it’s done, there’s no more need for the computer, the rest is done through the standalone unit. Here’s the fancier’s personal loft clock:
You can see that there’s a little box which detaches from the main unit – this is the bit that contains the data. You give that bit to the pigeon club and they use the master system to upload all your association ring numbers, as well as the race dates and locations for that particular season. Once that’s done, the linking can begin. You scroll through to the particular pigeon in question, and once you’ve found the right one, you pass the pigeon’s RFID ring over the scanner.
The software then links the RFID ring to the association ring, so you know which pigeon is wearing which RFID ring. Once all this is done (and this has to be well before the racing season starts) then you’re all set up to go. To enter your pigeons for a particular race, you take your chosen birds along to the club along with the cartridge from your loft clock and it’s a simple matter of choosing the correct race from the list on the screen of the club system, scanning your pigeon over the sensor and that’s about it. Once it’s all done, the printer will churn out a sheet containing the information of all the pigeons you’re sending to that particular race. Not only that but the club system will set the time on all the clocks using the MSF radio time signal broadcast by the National Physical Laboratory so that everyone’s clocks are synchronised (which is much more reliable than the old way of attempting to switch everyone’s clocks on simultaneously… no, I’m not joking).
Then, on race day, the magic happens. When the pigeons arrive home, they enter the pigeon loft and as they do so they pass over an RFID reader, installed just under the entrance hatch:
This reader scans the RFID chip in the ring and sends a signal to the fancier’s loft clock, and this records exactly which pigeon arrived (it knows this because you linked the RFID ring and association ring together remember?) and what time it arrived at. All the data is stored in the little cartridge, and then the fancier detaches this and takes it along to the club later that day. They plug it into their master clock and the printer spits out a sheet with all the timings on. Genius! The main advantage is that the system will be quite happy to do all this without anyone being present, so you can go out and do something else and your birds will still get timed in. Also, it’s a lot quicker than the old method, saving valuable seconds (which, in reality, can mean the difference between first place and second).
So there you go – a very happy Easter weekend spent pigeon-wrangling. Reports are that the system worked just fine and dandy for the first race of the season, so let’s hope that continues. It’s not exactly bleeding-edge technology, but in the world of pigeon racing it might as well be warp-drive.
If anyone’s interested in exactly how I got it all working (including the lessons learnt from making mistakes), then drop me a line. The next post will be business as usual, I promise.