When his mum's cat went missing, Wellington designer Zach Freiberg wanted to help - so he created a feline-tracking smartphone app.
Working with a team of five other Victoria University designers and network engineers, Mr Freiberg developed LoCATor, which uses a GPS-enabled, internet-linked collar to transmit the location of wandering moggies to an online database, then back to their owners or any other interested party.
Gareth Morgan's Cats To Go campaign also spurred the app - domestic cats kill nearly 19 million animals a year.
But Mr Freiberg said the app was just a "tool, not a solution".
"This might stop people letting their cats out or it might help [the Department of Conservation] to set up defences to protect wildlife - we're playing with the idea that people would always want to help nature. It's a small inconvenience but they would be helping the cause."
The technology alerts users when a cat crosses an invisible boundary, for example, Zealandia's outer perimeter or the secure zone around an airport.
In a nation of cat-lovers, the market is ripe. The group's research shows cat-owners spend $600 to $800 a year on their cats, meaning New Zealand's estimated 1.4 million domestic cats are lavished with up to $1.12 billion annually.
LoCATor is just one of a suite of clever conservation-themed apps developed by university design, engineering and computer science students.
Another is the Forager app, which highlights sources of wild food growing on public land around Wellington's CBD and inner city suburbs. Designer Hannah Faesenkloet is one of the quartet who developed that app, which gives users harvesting tips and recipes and has so far pinpointed 30 spots and 18 foods around the capital, including edible fare such as aloe vera, nettle, figs, crabapples and flax.
Created with advice from A Forager's Treasury author Johanna Knox, the app was also inspired by the plight of "other broke students" struggling to feed themselves, Ms Faesenkloet said.
Forager will be expanded nationally and users will be able to add sites. The team hopes to have the app available for download by the end of the year.
The university's design and engineering and computer science schools have both run smartphone app courses in recent years, but this is the first year the courses have been combined.
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