In the 20th century, the world gained industry-changing insights on primate behavior when researcher Dian Fossey went to the remote forests of Rwanda to study the daily activities of gorillas in their natural environment. How can we reimagine this model of observation and understanding of the animal world with the digital tools we now have available? 

Global demand for animal products is predicted to increase by as much as 40% in the next 15 years, but the number of farmers raising animals continues to fall. At the same time, a growing segment of the consumer market is demonstrating a preference for products raised or grown with animal welfare and environmental sustainability measures in place, as well as demanding transparency that can be audited, assessed and verified.

These trends have made digital technology as essential to farming as a tractor.  RFID tags and wearables can help farmers identify animals and monitor their health within short-range distances; what’s not been possible, however, is at-scale “Dian Fossey-style” surveillance of herds in the wilds of vast and remote pastures, where cattle may roam for many months of the year – until now.

[Queue the hum of drone propellers.]

Bringing Drones to Animal Life

While drone applications pose many challenges in populated urban and suburban regions, the rural setting of your local digitally-enabled farm or ranch may make these mesmerizing darlings more amenable. Cognizant’s Emerging Technologies team has designed a concept to aid in the management of animal health that includes a drone solution to monitor herd movements, body temperature and pain levels as detected using artificial intelligence (AI). If anomalies are detected, then ranchers and animal health providers (AHPs) are notified of a potential concern. Here’s how it may work.

  • Take the herd’s temperature: With each animal wearing an RFID tag, an initial thermo-imaging body temperature scan of the herd by drones verifies presence, tracks movements and evaluates body temperature for irregularities vs. established norms for the species or for the individual animal over the previous seven days.

  • Investigate potential pain levels: When irregular body temperatures are detected, the drone repositions on the face of the suspect animal to assess for signs of pain that may further indicate an illness or injury. This concept leverages similar models and approaches described in a Cambridge University study on detecting pain in sheep.

  • Alert care providers: The rancher receives an update on herd activity and is alerted of the potential injury, illness or health issue to an animal through a dashboard displaying diagnostic data collected, including thermo-imaging, live image/video capture, pain index, last known location and available biostatistical references.

The AHP associated with the ranch could also receive a notification of the potential health concern that includes an animal EMR with data similar to that shared with the rancher. The AHP might contact the rancher for consultation regarding potential livestock illnesses spreading from ranch to ranch, or to set up an appointment to evaluate the animal. This could significantly reduce time in scheduling, diagnosis, care and administration of therapy for the animal.

Obstacles to Overcome

Drones have developed a bad reputation as their presence has multiplied from military operations to commercial use. Their programmed, invasive functionality, when combined with facial recognition and AI capabilities, represents every fear of systematic spying that novelists and screenwriters have depicted for decades. Well-publicized incidents of threats to airline safety have contributed to the public’s distrust of drones.

The concept of monitoring livestock to proactively treat pain, injury and illness is a model of the positive possibilities of drone solutions. However, there are other factors to consider, since animals can’t express themselves as clearly as humans. How will livestock acclimate to the presence of drones? To ensure that the solution offers more benefits than risks, it may be necessary to monitor representative animals’ hormone levels for a period of time to determine whether the quality of the livestock is affected. Stress tends to induce physiological changes that may or may not be desirable. Even if the animals tolerated the drones over time, there could be a level of stress that diminishes their quality of life.

Another aspect to consider is drone size in relation to the animals’ flight response.  While we can assume that the closer the drone looks and sounds like an innocuous fly, the better the response will be, it will most likely be difficult to miniaturize to that degree. It’s worth noting that while airborne drones capture all the attention, terrestrial drones may offer similar benefits: Snake-like search and rescue prototypes have shown great promise in certain scenarios.

As consumer trends continue to change, so too must approaches to farming. Through creative use of drone technology, ranchers and animal health providers can decrease the impact of livestock illness, improve herd health management and evolve their practices to meet today’s demands.

Bryan Hill

Bryan Hill

Bryan Hill is Chief Technology Officer in Cognizant’s Life Sciences organization, responsible for digital solutions and technology innovation. His focus is on... Read more