Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and agricultural technology startup Ceres Tag have now introduced a new livestock monitoring device not dissimilar from fitness wearables and intended to help the country’s farmers track animals and mitigate risks. Housed in a ‘smart’ ear tag that isn’t much bigger than a standard tag, the technology itself is relatively straightforward and its current iteration contains only a GPS unit and accelerometers. Ceres Tag plans to continue working with CSIRO and implement temperature sensors while also focusing on weight and size reductions in the future. Those metrics can be accessed both locally and via either IoT or over longer distances via the Internet to track the movements of a herd of cattle, for example. However, they can also track individual animals and watch for abnormal movement to detect herd separation caused by an animal becoming lost or being stolen as well as gain early insights into whether an animal is sick or giving birth.

Background: Historically, livestock tracking and management have required farmers to either follow cattle and other animals actively – hiring on new personnel or assigning current ones to the task – or with vehicles. Both cases equate to a relatively expensive enterprise. In the latter case, that becomes even more of an issue due to the fact that conditions in areas where the livestock is located aren’t always easily accessed by road-going or even offroad vehicles. In those circumstances, the cost rises exponentially due to the employment of aircraft. In instances where livestock has been stolen, disrupted by wildlife or other natural events, or simply gone missing, farmers also aren’t always able to determine that there is an issue until long after the fact. The above-mentioned costs can and often do force farmers to make difficult decisions between searching for the animal and writing it off as a loss.

Of course, fitness tracking wearables have been doing nearly everything the farmers in question require for years now and have advanced steadily in the meantime. In fact, they’ve become just ubiquitous enough to begin stirring up controversies over user privacy and location data security. However, that may be beside the point since they’ve also become accurate enough to push those controversies to a level where even national government’s are taking notice. For example, many world governments have now banned the use of tracking features found in wearables following incidents where the tracking data was shown to compromise secretive military installations and troop movements. Similarly, they’ve also shown up in at least a few widely-reported criminal investigations, being trusted enough by the prosecution in many cases to be submitted as evidence that an individual was present when a crime took place.

At the same time, one of the drawbacks to those has been battery life, albeit to a lesser degree in fitness-specific variants. That’s actually one aspect of the platform that has kept some manufacturers from investing more time in smartwatches and may be one of the reasons more consumers often seem disinterested in the category. With that said, that’s also one area that CSIRO and Ceres Tag haven’t had to contend in, based on the included media. Because its hardware appears to run off of a solar array – presumably with a battery backup charging up throughout the day for night-time monitoring – the farmers don’t need to worry about the cost to power up the tracking tags or the hassle. Future iterations including further metric-gathering components will likely use more power but there also isn’t any kind of display visible to cause extra drain. So that may not be a problem at all.

Impact: Setting that aside, to date, the smart ear tags have only been trialed in 100 cattle located at CSIRO’s Queensland-based Lansdown Research Station. Bearing that in mind, the overarching goal is for the product to eventually become the world’s first accredited device purpose-designed to suit farmers and adhering to international traceability standards. To that end, development has been driven from research to real-world testing in well under a year, according to CSIRO, and will be shown at this year’s Meat & Livestock Australia-sponsored Red Meat 2018 tradeshow in Canberra – which runs through November 23. That will be followed up by an appearance at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture in Brisbane. The underlying benefits the wearable has to offer farmers and ranchers in Australia – and eventually elsewhere in the world – stem primarily from the costs associated with locating a herd or individuals under more open grazing conditions. But smart ear tags could also help save money and the lives of animals by alerting farmers well in advance of when an illness might be noticed or if an animal has gone into labor and may require assistance.