Carnegie Mellon University
November 19, 2021

Wireless Devices Help Monitor Livestock Health and Location

By Krista Burns

Krista Burns
  • College of Engineering

Livestock like cows, horses and bison are typically managed as large herds and require massive expanses of pasture. While this group-based management has significantly increased productivity, it makes continuous monitoring of animal health and well-being labor-intensive and challenging.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Virginia Tech have developed a versatile, reliable and attack-resistant wireless sensor network for smart animal monitoring. The team has received an NSF grant from the Division of Computer and Network Systems, and are currently demonstrating its operation and practicality on real farms.

Swarun Kumar, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon with an extensive background in wireless devices, joined the research team led by Virginia Tech.

The team has developed a 5 cm sensor ear tag that can monitor the biometrics, acceleration and location of animals. Powered by solar energy, the tags will not need to be recharged or replaced. The tag, attached at the ear, is consistent with existing ear tags used in the industry and will not harm the animal.

Although solutions exist to implement monitoring technologies in concentrated animal housing facilities, equivalent solutions for pastured animals are not available because of the energy draw associated with transmitting data over long distances (between animal pastures and the nearest traditionally connected environment). Popular technologies like WiFi and ZigBee are optimized for use on intensive, barn-based confinement operations and do not translate well to pastoral systems.

This innovative sensor network will leverage low-power, wide-area networking (LP-WAN) to enable animal care personnel to monitor the behavior and health of cattle remotely. LP-WAN devices aim to provide wireless connectivity at extremely low data rates over distances of several miles.

The biggest challenge in developing these networks is scale. Building a network where thousands of devices are communicating at the same time will lead to interference and prevent signals from reaching a base station several miles away.

"Our lab is developing the wireless protocols for these devices to efficiently coexist, communicate and last for years," said Kumar.

Kumar brings depth to the project, especially in terms of the LP-WAN devices. Carnegie Mellon's WiTEch Lab, led by Kumar, seeks to develop and apply wireless technologies to improve daily life. Current research projects using LP-WAN technology include sensors to track wildfires, fabric-friendly sensors that respond to human touch and automotive sensors to monitor tire wear.

"Low-power, wide-area networking devices are extremely versatile and can be adapted to endless fields," said Kumar. "I am excited to apply this technology to increase agriculture productivity."

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