Until the Cows Come Home: PNT Replaces Fences and Shepherds

Until the Cows Come Home: PNT Replaces Fences and Shepherds

A reminder that next week is the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. I will be eating sweet potato casserole and just having a good ole time. So, no article next week.

A Quick Note of SpaceX Safety Culture (or lack thereof)

Readers have probably seen the Reuters article about SpaceX’s workers, their injuries/deaths, and the company’s safety culture. The reporter’s facts look to be pretty well documented, including the numbers showing the company’s rate for these kinds of incidents to be well above normal for a space company. 

From personal observation and experience, it’s easy to work quickly when safety standards are in place. Even the U.S. military, where people volunteer to fight and die for this country, has strict safety standards. After all, the DoD understands that soldiers, their training, expertise, and experience, are expensive to replace. There's also that whole taking care of each other thing.

And those standards are everywhere, but the many missions the DoD is tasked with still get completed swiftly. Hell, I was a squadron motorcycle safety officer and had to brief others on the accidents that happened throughout the DoD and the lessons learned from them.

And now for something completely different.

When writing about the space industry, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers and the activities. People discuss company finances, whether a CEO is honest, or if the next version of whatever technology on a satellite will change the game–whatever that game is. 

But the point in mentioning the above kerfuffle is that the mission or service that improves life here on Earth gets lost in it all. It’s not about the infinite moolah investors will make from obscure technology (or worse, fictional tech). It’s not about progress at all costs (especially if it’s one person’s or group’s vision of progress). Those reasons tend to dilute a service or technology. They get in the way of enhancing life on Earth and make life worse and more expensive for people (a la Cory Doctorow’s observations about “enshittification”). 

Despite those efforts, however, something handy comes along and fills a need.

The Herd is the Word

Take herding animals, for example. Space technology, it turns out, is becoming useful to those with animal herds, such as cattle or sheep. But what’s probably frustrating for many entrepreneurs pursuing New Space for the sake of it is that the space technology used in helping to herd animals is from older space systems, such as the Global Positioning System or Galileo constellations. There’s nothing new, nothing groundbreaking to make a quick buck on.

A few years ago, in 2016, I stumbled onto this idea, primarily for cattle herding. A researcher had the idea to somehow get cattle to “self-herd” themselves. He experimented by putting collars full of technology around their necks. It was hoped that the experiments’ results would demonstrate that ranchers wouldn’t need to rely on barbed wire fencing. 

Travel across the American West on any one of its highways and byways, and motorists will inevitably see at least those two of three things throughout the states: barbed wire fencing, the cattle behind said fencing (hopefully), and the worn-out land underneath their hooves. 

U.S. ranchers have managed their graze land for over a century using wire fencing. They use fencing for land management and herding, moving the fenced areas to keep cattle from over-grazing the land. Moving fences requires time, buying wire and posts, and hiring labor. The physical barriers aren’t a deterrent to a determined bovine, but they generally help discourage most of the herd from leaving an area. 

Frugal Farmers? Never Heard of Them

But fencing is expensive; in 2012, 2.5 miles of fencing cost $63,000. The thousands of miles of four-strand barbed wire fences near U.S. roadways add up to a lot of money spent on fencing. Understandably, ranchers balance the costs of moving around fences with land management/over-grazing actions and a herd’s overall health. 

Those costs are a reason why scientists are working on a solution that uses signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, communications networks, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. They are developing ways to eliminate fences and still have the herd stay in a specific area or guide them to a different location. In other words, signals from space help herd cattle on Earth.

This concept requires cattle to wear collars with GPS, wireless communications, noise, and electrical impulse generation electronics. It does away with the labor-intensive and costly barbed wire fencing. Through a local communications network, ranchers use the GPS chipsets to establish a geo-fence (a virtual boundary) in whatever shape they desire on their land. 

As a cow approaches the virtual boundary, the collar annoys the cow with sound. The closer the cow gets to the boundary, the louder the sound becomes. The collar administers small, annoying shocks if the noise doesn’t persuade the cow to turn away. 

The upshot is that this combination of technology works. Cattle stay within the virtual boundary, minimizing the need for a physical fence. The technology also allows ranchers to move the cattle without hiring any labor. A rancher can select a new area for the herd to graze within and slowly move them toward that area by moving the virtual boundaries. The ease of use of this technology encourages more responsible land management while keeping a herd happy with fresh grazing fields—and reducing costs. 

Cow Herding, From Space, Helps the Environment

Gallagher (from Australia) offers a version of this product. The company received a $335,000 AUS grant from the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to study the impact of this type of land management on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Gallagher calls its product and service the eShepherd, offering the neckband for $315 (Australian)

Another company, noFence (from Norway), offers a similar product. Those wishing to hear about it can listen to the National Public Radio piece about its implementation at a North Virginia sheep farm. The company’s system works similarly to Gallagher’s, allowing customers to create a geo-fence using a smartphone app. 

The elephant in the room is that these systems involve more than space technology. Gallagher and noFence leverage existing, inexpensive technology–the smartphone and software–which uses some space services seamlessly, such as GPS and satellite imagery. It relies on terrestrial cellular and wifi networks for its communications. However, the upside of the technology mix is that users don’t need to train on the technology but can focus instead on setting up the software app.

The software application and smartphone are the space-related parts of the service. The app taps into the imagery of the customer’s property (generally provided by a satellite) so that the customer can draw the virtual boundaries (which rely on the navigation signals from space). 

Note that using the phone is much easier and quicker than setting up 2.5 miles of wire fencing.

Whether a sheep or cow, the virtual boundary must be around them. The animals have a collar that keeps track of their position relative to the boundary. If an animal starts getting too close, the collar emits a noise. If the animal persists, the collar will shock it. 

While there are apparent potential benefits in costs, one other reason for using virtual boundaries and herding is also mentioned: it can move. That ability is essential in land management and use. It allows the animal owners to slowly move herds from one area to another to keep land from being overgrazed and overpooped (?). 

One of the big problems with animal agriculture is that if they remain too long in one area, their “gifts to the land” tend not just to accumulate but then run off into the water. Those extra nutrients are gobbled up by algae, which then creates algal blooms. Moving the herd around prevents that. A Gallagher-sponsored study (resulting from that Great Barrier Reef Foundation grant) came to these conclusions:

Once hardware reliability of the eShepherd technology is achieved, the additional benefits associated with the implementation of Intensive Rotational grazing systems (cell grazing), which will result in better management to adjust stock numbers, manage groundcover, etc., additional factors that have yet to be included in value proposition (and hence reduce the cost of implementation) include:

  • Possible carbon sequestration (soil carbon) projects and Reef credits.
  • Reduction in labour costs.
  • Decrease in requirement for capital investment in fencing and water infrastructure.
  • Cleaner musters of cattle to be processed for sale.
  • Track animals to prevent loss of sick or escaped animals

Those conclusions are straightforward, mainly in a positive direction (the collar cost seems high, however). Even with the cost of the collar, Gallagher indicates that farmers see a return on their investment within two years at most. Of course, Gallagher is interested in pushing this application of navigation signals from space. Still, as noFence’s entrance into the U.S. market demonstrates, others are interested in this service. They are interested in understanding if it can make the environment and their lives better as a result.

One more thing to note. In the NPR interview, one of the farmers interviewed had this to say about noFence:

I just kept sending them emails, being like, when are you coming to the U.S.? When are you going - like once a year, I'd be like, how about now? How about now?

That foreign company’s offerings are fulfilling a U.S. farmer’s excitement over a product like this. At least one U.S. company, Vence (under Merck), seems to have similar offerings to those of noFence and Gallagher (although its collar doesn’t look as mature). And it appears that Vence is focusing on cattle, not sheep. But there might be a good reason for its focus on cattle: money.

When Agersens (bought by Gallagher) first hopped into this market, it estimated it could make $164 million in revenue in the system’s first five years. The company noted it had a waiting list of customers wanting to use it. And, unlike those waiting for a Virgin Galactic ride, the virtual herding customers will likely not wait long to get what they want. The impact of these virtual fencing companies’ products and services is more significant, not just for people but for the Earth’s environment as well.

As I admitted initially, I might get lost in all the space stuff going on. But, at least the cows know where to graze and when to come home–with a bit of help from space technology.