Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends
How new technologies are modifying our way of life

mardi 8 juin 2004

Imagine a farmer controlling his herds of cattle from the comfort of his home, using a laptop and special software letting him think he's playing a video game. What a dream! In fact, it's possible today, according to the New Scientist, in "Virtual fences to herd Wi-Fi cattle." In a near future, networked cows will wear 'smart' head-collars equipped with a Wi-Fi networking card, a PDA, a GPS unit, and a loudspeaker to tell them they're going too far from their fields. When the networked cows reach a virtual barrier erected by the farmer, they'll be warned by various sounds, such as barking dogs or hissing snakes. Kudos to Zack Butler for this truly innovative idea.

Here is the concept exposed by New Scientist.

A farmer would control multiple herds from a single server at home as if they were playing a video game, said Zack Butler, of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Although static virtual fences already keep dogs inside yards in affluent US neighbourhoods, no-one has attempted a moving virtual fence before, nor attempted to apply the idea to large herds of animals. "Basically we download the fences to the cows," says Butler. "We say: 'Today stay here, tomorrow go somewhere else."
Butler and his colleagues have written software that transmits the chosen GPS co-ordinates of a virtual fence to head-collars worn by the cows in the field. When a cow strays towards these co-ordinates, software running on the collar triggers a stimulus chosen to scare the cow away, such as a sound or a small electric shock - this is the "virtual" fence. The software also "herds" the cows when the position of the virtual fence is moved.

What's the technology behind this concept?

Each collar is equipped with a Wi-Fi networking card, a Zaurus PDA, an eTrex GPS unit and a loudspeaker, all of which are off-the-shelf components. The server and the collars communicate using the 802.11B Wi-Fi standard, using a Wi-Fi base station in the field.

Below are some illustrations of the 'smart collar' concept, extracted from this paper, "Networked Cows: Virtual fences for Controlling Cows" (PDF format, 3 pages, 453 KB).

Components of a cow's smart collar This diagram shows the components of the 'Smart Collar' which includes devices such as a Zaurus PDA or a WiFi compact flash card.
A fully assembled cow's smart collar And here is a fully assembled 'Smart Collar'.

A question remains: does this really work?

The warning currently being used is one of a library of sounds intended to scare a cow, including roaring tigers, barking dogs and hissing snakes. The group's tests showed that while these sounds slow the cattle down -- they receive the signal -- they do not always stop them crossing the virtual fence.

Apparently, this technology is not ready for prime-time. Even if the cows seem to be receptive to sounds, they still cross the virtual fences. So a little bit of electric shock is considered as a future addition to the system.

Maybe they should leave the cows alone, quietly watching trains...

Source: Celeste Biever, New Scientist, June 7, 2004

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