When many people think of a ranch, they think of it as a place untouched by modern technology. But as drone technology begins to offer more and better services, it is altering many industries — and ranching is no exception.
Just like in agriculture, it is the sensory technology affixed to the drone that's really useful, not only in creating efficiencies in the day-to-day life of a rancher, but in purifying the entire food chain.
AgCon Aerial Corp. is a Calgary-based company who teamed up with researchers at SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) to do just that.
"With our thermal imagery from 40 feet above the cattle, we're now able to spot early stage abnormalities — usually in regard to the animal taking on some kind of sickness," explained Al Graham, AgCon's VP of business development.
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It's like a doctor's checkup from the air, but without the risky contact. "I don't have to worry about if that animal is sick," he said. "This might affect the way it wants to deal with me. We've taken that human/animal contact out, right when it's at it's most dangerous. If that animal is suffering from some kind of sickness or injury, that's when the injuries are up."
And illness can happen fast. "Their noses are always in the dirt, so they're very susceptible to spores, anything like that, so you want to do constant monitoring." said Graham.
The next step in drone tech for treating cattle is to put the medical equipment directly on the UAV. Graham said they're currently working with the Canadian Bison Association to develop an inoculation gun for use on another animal that doesn't like being handled by humans — the bison.
"To bring one single buffalo in is just a heck of a chore; you always have to bring in the herd," said Graham. "So to bring one animal back in to get treated with whatever you may be treating it for — that's a lot of handling. We've taken that step right out with this technology."
Because Transport Canada doesn't allow them to carry a charge in the air, they aren't able to use a standard CO2 for the propulsion system.
"We've had to think outside the envelope — we just went to a basic spring, like a spring loaded bb gun," Graham explained. "We can fly out to the animal, confirm with the ear tag that that's the animal we want to treat, and then we inoculate that animal in the field. It's a biodegradable needle that hangs with the animal until it's empty, then it spring pops itself out of the hide of the animal and onto the ground."
That RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology that allows the drone to "recognize" which individual cow is getting sick, or which bison needs a shot, is the key to unlocking the drone's potential for the ranching industry.
"Through your smart phone you'll be alerted to any cow that's on your place, whether that cow is ready to have a calf, whether that cow is getting sick," said Graham. "We've taken our thermal camera and looked at the loin of the animal, if we see a degree change in there, anywhere from two to five degrees, that drone will mark that animal and send a message to the smart phone saying, 'Cow number 35 has shown a spike in temperature today and you might want to keep an eye on her when you're out there feeding her this morning.'"
That's the drone doing a task that the rancher doesn't have to do himself. That's becoming more important as farms have more and more difficulty in keeping staff.
"That $2,000 to $10,000 investment jumps up above your farm, anywhere from 40 to 200 feet depending on what it's doing, and gives you an outside and an inside picture, and tells you what's happening on your farm. It's managing your assets."
Purifying the food chain
Graham looks to a future where all of the farm's assets have an RFID tag, and not just the livestock. That includes tractors, trucks, and grain bins too. If they're open they'll send an alert saying there could be someone tampering with the bin, and then go out and investigate, beaming the information back to the owner. Then he is able to decide whether or not he wants to call the police, or check it out himself.
And it does even more than that in terms of food safety.
"What we've done with SAIT through our partnership is we've learned there's a bunch of stuff on there that we can expand on to give us more of a secure monitoring of that animal," explained Graham. "Health, GPS (global positioning system) location, and right back down to the main purpose of the RFID, which is the origin of that animal. Where it came from, where was it born, and through this technology we're tracing this animal right down to the end, at the slaughterhouse."
If the slaughterhouse wants the technology, they're able to trace the origin of each one of those animals coming through the production line.
"Now if that slaughterhouse gets E. coli or mad cow pop up again, it comes down to just how bad do you want to find it?" he said. The slaughterhouse can use the RFID technology to work as a sort of detective, tracing the tags of each of the animals back to birth.
"That's the purest food chain you can get."
Special thanks to AgCon Aerial Corp.