Our wireless future

When I look at the latest technological trends and developments in agriculture, I can’t help but wonder to what extent farming in the future will be done by remote control.

I recently stumbled on an interesting interview with US scientist Dean Anderson, who is known for his research in the field on virtual fencing. He firmly believes farmers of the future will be able to contain and control their livestock through wireless fencing.

This will be done by setting up virtual perimeters on their farms. The livestock is contained in spaces he calls ‘electronic polygons’ through GPS devices that are attached to the animals and are known as Ear-a-rounds.

According to the Economist, these devices control the animals through “quiet sonic alerts, mild tingles, major ones to shouts or shocks” on the ear opposite to the direction in which the animal is being nudged. “You could be driving your property in your air-conditioned truck and you notice a spot that received rain in the recent past and that has a flush of highly nutritious plants that would otherwise be lost,” explains Anderson.

“Well, you can get on your laptop, right then and there, and program the polygon that contains your cows to move spatially and temporally over the landscape to this ‘better location’. Instead of having to build a fence or take the time and manpower to gather your cows, you would simply move the virtual fence…”

Just imagine what this technology will mean for ‘free range’ farming. Watch a video demonstration of a virtual fence in action here. With this kind of technology, farmers might even reach a point where they will be able to control their farms thousands of kilometres off site. The security implications should, of course, also be considered. One of the blogs I read about this went as far as to say we’ll also need to answer the question of how to deal with cow-hacking and virtual rustling!

I previously wrote about the surveillance capabilities of drones, but there are many more technological marvels that are making farmers’ lives easier. We’re already able to monitor cables and wires with technology that sends SMSes as soon as anything has been tampered with (GSM has some interesting technology in this regard).

Solar- powered CCTV cameras enable farmers to keep tabs on troughs, tanks, livestock conditions, traps, security and more. Tagging systems are also becoming more advanced, not only assisting farmers with surveillance and the counting of cattle (like Tramirloc for example), but also enabling the monitoring of soil moisture and movement.

All of this technology comes at a price, of course. Virtual fencing is said to cost around $600 (R6714) USD per cow, but the developers hope to bring the price down to around $100 (R1120). The fact remains everything is becoming more affordable and accessible.

So when will we see this technology on local soil?