Thursday, September 11, 2008

Virtual Livestock Fence

Dr Anderson and Dr Rus started from the observation that the job of a fence is merely to regulate an animal’s behaviour and asked if there was another way of achieving the same end. The result is a device dubbed the Ear-a-round, which acts both as a sensor of what an animal is up to and as a discipline on animals that are not behaving as their owner wishes.

The Ear-a-round consists of a small, light box that sits on top of a cow’s head, and a pair of earpieces made of fabric and plastic. The box contains a small computer, a GPS satellite-tracking device and a transceiver that enables it to be programmed remotely. The earpieces both keep the box upright and deliver commands—either sounds or electric shocks—to the animal wearing the device. The whole thing is powered by lithium-ion batteries topped up by solar cells.

The range that an animal is allowed to occupy is encoded using GPS co-ordinates. The GPS system determines the animal’s location, and an accelerometer and a compass housed inside the box track its rate and direction of travel. If an animal roams beyond the range specified, the device responds in a way determined by its wearer’s recent behaviour. The algorithms devised by Dr Rus are able to work out, based on past experience, how strong the message to turn back needs to be.

Minor transgressions lead to quiet sonic alerts or mild tingles; major ones to shouts or shocks. In both cases the cue is delivered to the ear opposite the direction that the animal is being nudged towards. Four years of research at a ranch in New Mexico have shown that cattle quickly cotton on to what they need to do.

Is all this really cheaper than fencing? At $600 a cow, not yet. But Dr Rus is working to get the price of the hardware down to the $100 that farmers will pay. But Dr Rus is working to get the price of the hardware down to the $100 that farmers will pay. Meanwhile Dr Anderson is about to start investigating how many cows actually need to be fitted with Ear-a-rounds to control an entire herd. He hopes that, by identifying a herd’s leaders and equipping them alone, this number can be reduced to a handful.
Cool. I hope they at least let the cows listen to their own playlists when they stay within the bounds (insert your own moosic joke here).

The American team will need to work fast to get this to market as the Aussies are developing their own version of this technology (video here).

via The Economist and Core77

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