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Livestock flight zone research lays groundwork for drone use

Sarah Lenkaitis Published on 11 September 2015

The use of drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs) has taken off in crop production, providing an easy way to survey land and scout crops. However, among all of the chatter surrounding crops, there’s also another sector of agriculture uncovering practical applications for the futuristic technology: livestock farmers.

At this year’s joint annual meeting held by the American Dairy Science Association (ADSA) and American Society of Animal Science (ASAS), Dr. Marcy Beverly presented research on the flight zone for different species of livestock associated with the use of a drone.

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An animal science professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, Beverly said the research project resulted from an afternoon brainstorming session with a member of the physics department.

“They had purchased the drone and wanted to discuss potential uses,” Beverly said. “We began discussing potential applications for livestock monitoring but quickly realized we needed to work backward and first look at the flight zone of each species.”

Beverly, and colleague Dr. Stanley Kelley, along with students Phillip Urso and Reid Tipton, led the study utilizing cattle, goats and horses. They had six test groups:

1. A pasture of 30 Angus-cross cows with their calves

2. A drylot with three pens of Angus-cross cows; each pen contained five cows

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3. A pasture of 50 weaned Angus-cross heifers

4. A pasture containing 40 goats, along with a donkey and a dog (to provide predator protection)

5. Pairs of horses in round pens on pasture

6. Four horses grouped in round pens within an arena

When conducting the research, Urso emphasized it was important to begin by starting far enough away that the animals couldn’t see or hear the drone or any people. In addition, environmental influence was minimized by utilizing the same zone and making sure conditions, including barometric pressure, wind speed and temperature, were all similar during each test.

Conducting each test required a team of three individuals – a controller operating the drone, a second person monitoring the elevation of the drone via a phone application that paired with the drone and a person evaluating the behavior of the animals in the test group. Beverly explained that operating the drone required some practice ahead of time to be able to make the incremental drops smoothly.

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Except for the arena test group that had a height limitation, the drone began at 75 feet and was dropped in 5- to 10-foot increments. At each new height, a behavioral score of 1 (representing the animals were calm and displayed no difference in behavior) to 5 (for an animal exhibiting extreme distress or panic) was assigned.

Urso noted that only the indoor horses recorded a behavioral score of 5, as the drone was only lowered to a height where animals became slightly restless. It was determined that the drone was entering the animal’s flight zone when the animal began to move out from under the drone. In addition to measuring the flight zone, the research also looked at habitualization. However, following seven sequential days of interaction with the drone, the animals showed no changes in behavior.

animal flight distanceThe results of the tests showed a 15-foot flight zone for the cows with calves on pasture, heifers on pasture and goats on pasture, and a 25-foot flight zone for the cows in the drylot, horses in the round pens and horses in the arena.

“We’ve presented the research at three meetings so far, and it’s been very well-received,” Beverly said. “From an animal welfare standpoint, it provides information about an option for livestock farmers to monitor animals without disturbing the environment.” Instead of having to go on foot, by truck or by horse, drones offer farmers the ability to monitor animals from a non-invasive distance.

While the most practical applications include checking on animals for illness or difficulties during calving, Beverly sees additional opportunities arising as the technology progresses and is more widely adapted by livestock farmers. For example, she mentioned that if the logistics can be worked out, one day drones could be utilized to carry and apply dewormers or fly repellent – without entering the animal’s flight zone or having to work livestock through a chute.

Of particular interest to Beverly and Sam Houston State University is the ability for the drone to carry an infrared camera to monitor the temperature of livestock. According to Beverly, while determining flight zones of different species of livestock was the first drone project at the university, it will not be the last.

They are looking at future studies, including purchasing a larger drone with a larger payload to be able to carry a camera. By adding an infrared camera, livestock farmers would be given a less invasive option to monitor temperature and diagnose illness and begin treatment ahead of seeing physical signs. Beverly noted this could be of particular benefit to cattle in a feedlot setting.

“First, we needed to understand if the livestock would accept the presence of a drone, and how close we would be able to get,” Beverly said. “Now that we have an understanding of the flight zones for each species, we can take a deeper look at potential applications.” The subsequent research and discovery by Beverly and others will uncover new ways to utilize the technology to benefit both livestock and farmers.  PD

Sarah Lenkaitis is a freelance writer and dairy farmer in Saint Charles, Illinois.

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