Australia’s animals are joining the Internet of Things, and according to a recent report by ANU, it’s just one of a suite of new technologies that could add $15.6 billion to the value of production in agriculture, fisheries, and forestry industries each year in Australia.
“Five years from now a farmer will wake up in the morning and tap his smart watch and get a download of the information from satellites in Low Earth Orbit with smart sensors, instantly,” says Australia’s first astronaut, Dr Paul Scully-Power, who now works with the NSW Smart Sensing Networks. He is confident about the “dramatic shift” taking place.
“In the background, overnight, various artificial intelligence algorithms will have decided what needs to be done that day. Does he need this field watered, sprayed?
“He’ll tap his smart watch again and that will control the robots. They can be tractors, drones… any combination. The revolution is not only going to be satellites but the connectivity that they provide to unmanned vehicles on the ground or in the air.”
Space-based technologies can already monitor where farm animals are and check out their feed situation. And new technology coming online can tell when they’re mating, or giving birth.
GPS systems are being used to create virtual fencing, which a farmer can tweak on his iPad. Cattle heading for the perimeter might get an audio cue first that they’re going the wrong way, then an electrical impulse once they hit the “fence”.
And that fence can be quickly moved to herd livestock into greener pastures.
But there’s more to come. CSIRO and Ceres Tag are developing ear tags that last the lifetime of the animal. They say it will give producers “greater control over grazing management, allow them to locate livestock remotely and alert them to stock theft, illness, or if an animal is giving birth”. It will monitor how much cattle eat, which can save both money and carbon emissions.
CSIRO is also working with Indigenous land management corporations to track herds of feral pigs, cattle and buffalo by tagging them and connecting them to the IoT to work out the best forms of animal control.
There’s even a plan in New Zealand to use satellites to track bovine flatulence.
CSIRO’s digital agriculture leader Dave Henry says there are many types of wearables for animals.
The way an animal moves, how much and how quickly it moves generate just some of the data that can give useful insights.
The sensors can also make it clear if an animal gets sick.
“You can imagine if all of a sudden you get unwell you stop moving. So you can detect from a change in their behaviour that it might be an alert that they’ve got something wrong with them and they need treatment,” Dr Henry says.
Knowing where the animal is makes them easier to control.
“[Virtual fencing] detects the location and movement of an animal and says I don’t want it to go over there so I’m going to give it a pulse to stop it. Or I want it to go over there, so I give it a push,” he says.
The new space era connects smaller, cheaper sensors with constellations of smaller, cheaper satellites – although there are still plenty of barriers before the farm of the future becomes a reality.
A recent report for Agrifutures by the Australian National University, Space-based technologies – opportunities for the rural sector, found the new space-based technology could add $15.6 billion to the value of production in agriculture, fisheries, and forestry industries each year.
It also points out that using satellites needs reliable, fast internet, that it’s often not clear to producers what their return on investment is, and that there are too many options for now that are only theoretical in the absence of the right connectivity.
Meat and Livestock Australia’s research, development and adoption general manager Mick Crowley says the journey has been “pretty interesting” as space-based technologies have taken off – and not all of them successfully.
“A few years ago we saw a lot of startup companies coming here to deploy their technology,” he says.
“It was like everyone had a solution, but had to find a problem to point it at. So we set up a demonstration farm, and invited them to deploy their technology.
“There were about 150 companies that had solutions listed. About 20 deployed their technology.”
Most just weren’t ready, he says, but in the end those who were set up about 200 devices on the demonstration property and MLA is now working to steer primary producers through them.
Among those that do work are sensors with accelerometers.
“They show whether they’re moving or not, whether heifers are cycling, whether they’ve calved,” he says, adding that behaviour is more important than temperature in monitoring cattle.
“Behaviour that indicates if they’re cycling, mounting each other. If you put the tag in the bull you know how active he is, that sort of thing,” he says.
For Henry, the area that’s “evolving very quickly” is pasture monitoring. That allows people to predict the number of days of grazing that are available, and that can be connected to animal health.
ANU geophysicist Professor Paul Tregoning, co-author of the Space-based technologies report, says the slow uptake of technology such as virtual fencing is also due to concerns over animal welfare, and getting the proper authorities’ approval.
“It’s more taking a cautious approach,” he says, adding that it’s still hard to get the right satellite coverage.
“There’s a lack of understanding in many people about what extra satellites or one new satellite will give you,” he says. “There’s a tradeoff between the altitude of the orbit and the angle at which the satellite crosses. Where it will fly over and how often it will fly over.”
Farmers will need to work out whether they get the most bang for their buck by using a company that invests in LEO satellites, which will give better visual resolution but might not be passing overhead exactly when you need them. Geostationary satellites stay in the same place above the Earth but are much further out, so the resolution is not as good.
Henry says the big gamechanger will be if artificial intelligence can work with satellites and sensors to make predictive models.
“Instead of saying here’s what it is now, it’s putting more accuracy on what the future looks like – and what the changes I make now looks like resulting in,” he says.
So the farmer draws a line on a map, which is converted to GPS coordinates for the virtual fence. Then irrigation sensors or soil moisture probes might trigger a watering system to switch on, greening a paddock so animals can then be moved there.
Henry says that would be a much more autonomous system, but he also warns about taking the human out of the equation, because of their intuition and ability to weigh extra factors and risks.
“What’s then important is ‘how do humans and the technology work together in an optimal way’,” he says.
“The tech has to augment the human decision-making, not necessarily replace it. There’s an opportunity for the machine to learn. It learns from the decisions I make, learns and evolves over time.”
He also points out the benefits to the purchaser of products utilising new technology.
“What does the consumer want when they’re buying produce? Do they want to read that it’s environmentally friendly, carbon neutral, animal friendly? The tech can provide the credentials that things are produced in a responsible way.”
The Agrifutures report is similarly confident in the future, pointing to the new Satellite-Based Augmentation System (SBAS) currently being tested by Geoscience Australia. The high-resolution geolocation data it will provide will be accurate to about 10cm.
Improved resolution, and the potential of mega constellations that can deliver satellite internet into rural and remote areas will see satellite services become more cost competitive.
“The next big thing is not just around the corner – it is already orbiting above,” the report concludes.