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More than just a second set of eyes

Danielle Schlegel for Progressive Cattleman Published on 23 June 2017
Cow-calf producers are using drone technology

As technology evolves, drones are finding their way into a lineup of non-negotiables in producers’ management toolkits.

With all new technology comes a fair share of kinks to work out; Bret Chilcott with AgEagle says that small, unmanned aircraft technology has significantly improved even in the last five years.

“The technology has already been embraced by the early adopters,” Chilcott says. “They’re eager to embrace new technology, and they know there are going to be bugs. And there were, but they enjoy being a part of the solution. The technology has come a long way thanks to those adopters and our commitment to improving drone technology.”

What was once an expensive camera with wings now has evolved into more than just a second set of eyes that doesn’t require a feed ration. Dr. Deon van der Merwe, associate professor at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, has devoted much of his time to research in radio frequency identification (RFID) drone integration.

“The way this technology is developing is that it is becoming more powerful and less expensive and easier to use,” van der Merwe says. “Although the RFID technology for drones is not quite there yet to be viable for wide use, it will get there. It is just a matter of time, I think.”

Reading capability

RFID technology can automatically identify and track the enabled chip attached to an animal. This can be attached in various methods, such as eartags or stomach modules, and transmit data to a centralized source such as a reader on a gate detecting how often a specific animal passes through.

“Systems like this are already quite widely used in systems such as dairies where the transponder is typically on a neck band or a band around the legs and tracks the information about the animal,” van der Merwe says. “That information typically gets downloaded to a central computer system when, let’s say, the dairy cow enters the milk spool.”

His research has focused on how to receive more active data from RFID transponders by using a drone as the data reader.

“The application with which we intended to use RFID is basically a location and assessment of individual animal presence or absence. We want to be able to say these animals are in a pasture [where they are expected to be],” van der Merwe says. “If an animal is not present where we expect them to be, then this is a method to potentially look where it could be. This was based on a sensing system that will allow you to place an animal as an individual as its own transponder with a unique number that will allow you to place it in a certain area within a 400-foot radius.”

Cattle watch as a drone hovers overhead

This research is just one of many sensor technologies in the development stages of integrating into drone systems, van der Merwe notes.

“That is one type of system, but the way this is going, in the future this is probably going to be something that allows you to integrate multiple types of sensors and multiple types of data into a more comprehensive system that will give you useful data about the animal,” he says. “Such types of information include their movement patterns, whether or not they are potentially in heat and other parameters people could develop that could be associated with a transponder system. The role of the aircraft would be to pick up the data from the animal out in the pasture, for example.”

In terms of where the RFID technology is with drone integration, van der Merwe notes it is a matter of someone taking up the challenge to figure out how to engineer a drone capable of long-distance RFID tracking, likely due to a concern for what the market can hold currently.

“It’s a matter of what the size of the market is versus the time and money it will require. I think someone just hasn’t taken up the challenge seriously, but as soon as someone does, that will change the whole scenario because it will just be a matter of implementing it,” he says. “The technology is available; it’s more of a matter of engineering questions and how to implement it and work out the procedures and how to make it user-friendly. It doesn’t require a scientific breakthrough at this point.”

Thermal cameras

While RFID sensors on drones aren’t yet a commercially available product, thermal sensing is.

“Thermal cameras are becoming more capable and more affordable to the extent that, for some people, it is starting to make sense to have a drone equipped with a thermal camera to find animals that are somewhat difficult to find in places like forested areas or in areas down in bushes and shrubs that make it difficult to find. You could use a thermal camera in those circumstances to easily find animals,” van der Merwe says.

A camera suited to finding animals is more expensive than a normal camera or drone, he notes, and can run between $3,000 and $5,000. While this price point would be cost-limiting for many producers, van der Merwe pointed out that for the appropriate terrains, finding a couple lost cows thanks to a thermal-sensing-equipped drone can quickly pay for itself.

As the technology continues to evolve, what van der Merwe credits as the “low-hanging fruit” in drone applications is still utilizing the unmanned aircraft as an extension of their eyes.

“It is a camera they can put somewhere that might not be time-convenient or easy to get to, and they can asses things visually by using the drone. It’s quite efficient in a lot of scenarios,” he notes.

John Walker, professor and resident director of research for Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, Texas, notes cow-calf producers have especially found use in basic drones for various purposes including water level checks and forage conditions assessments.

Future uses

As far as the future of drone sensor technology, he too sees the great opportunities RFID drone integration has for beef producers, especially seedstock and cow-calf operations.

“I think the most useful use for drones will be for large operators to locate cattle before gathering a big pasture. This could be especially useful if cattle had active RFID tags that can transmit for long distances, which would facilitate locating cattle rather than having to fly a pattern to locate them,” Walker says. “Drones are not necessary for this, but their ability to get above trees and brush and obtain line of sight with the tags would be an advantage. If the active RFID tags had sensors, such as temperature or activity sensors, they could be used to detect illness and possibly heat. These potential applications are futuristic, but the future comes faster every day.”

Walker offered advice to folks first dabbling in using drones as additions to their management toolkit.

“Buy a cheap (under $100) drone first and fly it. You will learn how they can take a licking and keep on ticking, which will free you up to be more adventurous when you get a good drone,” he says. “To be really useful for inventory or searching, you will need to purchase second-party software such as Dronedeploy or UGCS Mapper that allows routes to be programmed before flight.”

Chilcott foresees the beef industry widely adopting drones as a tool in their tool belt in the near future; it is already evolving into a more complete solution for data capturing that goes beyond just a second set of eyes in the sky.

And as the technology evolves, the applicable uses of drones in beef production will likely grow with it.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Cow-calf producers are using drone technology to observe cattle above tree lines and with greater ease if used with RFID tags.

PHOTO 2: These cattle near San Angelo, Texas watch as a drone hovers overhead. Photos provided by Dr. John Walker. 

Danielle Schlegel
  • Danielle Schlegel

  • Freelance Author
  • Whitewood, South Dakota
  • Email Danielle Schlegel

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