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ARTICLES >> Livestock Articles

Don’t Fence me in- the Virtual Alternative

Posted by Bestprac on Feb 28 2013

By Liz Guerin

Fencing. The never-ending chore, that most farmers love to hate, could potentially become a thing of the past with the development of a prototype ‘virtual’ fence by CSIRO researchers.

The virtual fencing system could replace ‘traditional’ fixed fences, with virtual fences being drawn and moved using a mouse and computer screen, saving producers money in terms of capital and labour.

The system works on the same principles of the electric fence – except there is no fence! Animals are contained within boundaries drawn entirely by global positioning system (GPS).  Electric collars worn by the animals emit a sound to warn stock that they are approaching a virtual boundary line. A mild electric shock is delivered should the animal ignore the audio warnings.
 Cattle Control: Electronic collars control cattle with GPS boundaries using audio and electrical cues
CSIRO Research Scientist, Dr Greg Bishop-Hurley said that the concept of virtual fencing is “transformational technology with enormous potential”.

 “The most significant advantage of a virtual fence is the financial savings involved with constructing and maintaining fences, and is more flexible, allowing producers to move and adjust fence boundaries instantly with the click of a mouse,” he said. “This could allow more even grazing and more efficient pasture use. Overgrazing can be prevented more easily and difficult to fence areas can be protected.”

The prototype system has been successfully demonstrated on cattle using independent animal welfare experts to ensure that animals were not unduly stressed by the virtual fence.

Cattle were purchased through the local saleyards to ensure that they were unfamiliar with the system and resulting audio and tactile stimuli. They were then yarded and each fitted with an adjustable nylon collar and a head harness.

The collar holds three weatherproof boxes for both electronics and batteries. The electronics box is held in place at the top of the animal’s neck using the two battery boxes as counterweights positioned at the base of the neck.

The electronics box, containing microcomputers, radios and sensors, emits sounds when the animal approaches the virtual boundary. If it proceeds, it receives a mild electric shock – approximately one fifth of the voltage used by conventional electric fencing.

“With conventional electric fencing, animals have the visual cue of the fence’s physical presence,” Dr Bishop-Hurley said. “With the virtual fence, as GPS is used to define the boundary, auditory and tactile cues are used instead.”

Dr Bishop-Hurley said that the combination of stimuli was very effective with the cattle taking less than an hour, (an average of seven approaches) before they learnt from the cues and moved away from the boundary.

Once the boundary is set, the system is both automated and self sufficient. It is hoped that in the future producers are able to set new fencelines at any time, as well as monitor the animals’ location relative to the virtual fence line in near ‘real-time’, using Google Earth.

However, small paradigm shifts need to be made when considering the virtual fencing concept.

“People perceive fences as a barrier that cannot be crossed. Virtual fencing is a permeable barrier – able to be crossed, but animals are discouraged from doing so,” Dr Bishop-Hurley said.

The system uses algorithms based on animal behaviour that ‘tell’ the computer what to do in certain circumstances. For example, if an animal is frightened and runs through the boundary, the equipment switches off to allow the animal to return to the herd – its natural response.

Whilst research has shown conclusively that the concept of virtual fencing can be achieved (controlling cattle 99.7% of the time), there are still some significant limitations which need to be overcome before the system can become a commercial reality.

Current battery life of the collar is limited to around five days if the devices are switched on continuously. In practice, producers would need collars that remained powered for several months.

Dr Bishop-Hurley said that the biggest user of energy was the GPS signal and, even despite advances in the last three years with newer GPS chips being smaller and using less power, there would still be a need to balance development of new devices which produce their own energy and newer technologies that use less power.

“We are certainly getting closer – and the focus is now on either not using a GPS, or reducing or supplementing energy,” he said. “It may be possible to use solar or kinetic energy sources to enhance battery life, or allowing periods of time where the GPS unit can be switched off altogether.”

The other constraint is the need to improve the interface of the equipment with the animal. The collar needs to be something that the animal can wear for several months

“At the trial phase, we didn’t really focus on purposes other than research and proof of concept,” he said. “But for the animal to be wearing it for extended periods of time, it will need to be comfortable and not too intrusive.”

The question on everyone’s mind is – ‘how far away is the technology from being commercially available?’

Dr Bishop-Hurley says that, depending on the level of investment and limitations still to be overcome, it could still be a few years away from commercial production. However, CSIRO is seeking collaborators to support this work and help bring virtual technology into the real world.

 “The equipment used for the trial was not mass produced and therefore quite expensive on a cost per animal basis,” he said. “But the project is continuing to look at both animal control and monitoring and, considering the potential applications of the technology, these are exciting times.”

The virtual fencing project is currently being undertaken through CSIRO's Sustainable Agriculture Flagship and involves researchers in Townsville and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Last changed: Mar 04 2013

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