By Will Verboven, Contributing Editor

In Canada, the use of drones in commercial crop production has been growing every year through advanced crop scouting in the detection of diseases, pests and nutrient deficiencies. And for good reason – early detection could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in crop losses. In addition, drone use is expanding into precision chemical treatment of affected crops, saving growers more money.

This has led to visionaries contemplating the use of drones in livestock production. The initial use could be in counting cattle on large operations. That technology is a ways down the road since it would require a reliable electronic connection between an animal and an overhead drone equipped with detection sensors. It would be very useful to be able to count cattle in real time and pinpoint their locations, particularly in semi-forested rangelands. A side benefit would be to keep an eye on predators and any recent livestock kills.

At present, there are infrared sensors that can be used on drones to detect warm-blooded animals. These could conceivably be used to count and locate cattle in remote areas. For this to be successful, the technology still needs to be able to provide more precise numbers and locations. Electronic ear tags could be used for the detection of cattle and, if their individual IDs were connected to GPS technology a producer would know exactly where cattle are and if any are missing.

In Canada, we already have the basis for such advancement with the established national Canadian Cattle Identification Program that mandates every bovine in Canada be nationally registered via an ID ear tag. The tags use radio frequency technology so they can be read by portable electronic readers. That technology won’t work for drone monitoring, which requires tags utilizing high-tech ultra-high frequency (UHF) technology.

UHF ear tags is where technology is going thanks to research at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, which has become a world leader in the development of this technology. A new UHF ear tag needs to be developed that can reliably be detected by a drone flying at 100 feet above the ground. GPS technology already exists whereby a drone can be automatically programmed to fly over contours or obstacles on a grid pattern. This works best with rotary drones, as they are more flexible and can hover over difficult areas. Imagine that instead of spending days locating cattle and strays, it could all be done in a matter of hours. Lost or sick cattle could be quickly located and a rider sent to the exact location to deal with the animal, making the difference between a live animal and coyote food. Saving just a few head of cattle could pay for drone monitoring.

The feedlot industry could be another customer for new drone uses. There would be value in having accurate real-time counts of animals in each pen, but operators would already know that for feeding purposes. Pen checkers are also in the frontline for keeping track of numbers, particularly of sick cattle. That suggests feedyard operators would need a better economic argument for purchasing a drone than just counting cattle. One area that may provide the industry with an incentive to use drone technology could using drones to measure body temperature.

One of the first signs of animal distress is a rise in body temperature, and the quicker it is detected, the better the chance for treatment and recovery. As previously mentioned, infrared technology already exists that can locate warm-blooded animals. It’s even possible to separate animals out by species through specific temperature programming. With new ear tag UHF ID technology, a drone could hover over a pen of feeder cattle and, using infrared heat detectors, instantly identify a problem animal and send the information to a pen checker to cut the specific animal out for treatment.

Another approach being researched is to develop an ear tag with a unique device that could constantly monitor the specific temperature of each individual animal with the drone collecting the information on regular flyovers. This would be much more precise and could identify potential illness trends in a whole pen. I expect algorithms could also be developed to detect cattle in unusual positions, i.e. injured, listless or excitable. Drones could even be equipped with devices that could shoot antibiotics into sick cattle.

Drone development and use in agriculture seem to be more advanced in Canada, which is somewhat ironic considering high-tech drone technology was refined by the U.S. military. The problem seems to be that there are more restrictions on commercial drone use in the U.S. where there are more legal concerns with privacy and commercial use of drones than in Canada.

Commercial operators here have been licensed to operate drones in a variety of applications from crop and forestry monitoring, to industrial surveying and more for at least the past five years. Cattle monitoring by drones is just another technologic opportunity. There will be casualties with such progress as many of our usual livestock handling practices may become obsolete. Alas, the romance of some traditional cowboy cattle handling procedures may also be lost. But that’s progress – I guess.