Farm Animals Could Soon Carry Wi-Fi

In a few years, shepherds might be monitoring their flocks with networks of wireless sensors

Laurence Labat/Corbis

If you’ve ever read a sci-fi novel that includes some type of farming community, it probably featured agriculture tricked out with mecha-harvesters and robotic herders. Well, the robots are already tantalizingly close to rolling out in the fields to pull weeds. And now researchers are thinking about the possibilities of connecting animals to wireless.

The idea is relatively simple: animals could sport sensors that gather data and communicate with each other in a distributed network. It’s a version of the "Internet of Things," writes Tove K. Danovich for the Atlantic. While in a city, "it’s easy to make these technologies work...where you have broadband and wireless everywhere," Gordon Blair, of Lancaster University, told Danovich, "doing this work in in the rural environment is tremendously exciting."

Already, the idea has been tested. The nomadic Sámi people of northern Sweden have hooked their reindeer up in a network that roams with them. The sensors help the herders keep track of their animals, and relays mounted in backpacks or vehicles can communicate with the Internet itself. Email, cached-web access, lesson plans and more can be downloaded when one of those relays makes it to a connected village and passed along through the web of connections in the herd itself.

Wi-Fi enabled animals won’t just help humans stay connected, they can actually help farmers do their job. Danovich writes:

In Australia, where sheep are big business, scientists are hoping to put sensor technology in animals' ear tags. Greg Cronin is a professor of animal welfare and behavior who is interested in using technology to monitor flocks. One of the biggest problems for Australian sheep farmers are dogs—both feral and native. “In some areas it’s almost impossible to keep sheep because of them,” Cronin says. He worked with a team to put GPS trackers and accelerometers into sheep collars. “If you could pick the right sensor that identified behaviors that changed when sheep were under attack, it could trigger an alarm for the farmer.” This, hopefully, would allow someone to intervene before the flock was harmed.

Lightweight sensors, perhaps powered by solar arrays, will minimize the burden on animals—the transmitters would likely be added to the ear tags they already wear. It might seem like an odd concept now, but even farm animals get caught up in the push for the future.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.