Asset-tracking using Internet of Things (IoT) devices is not new, but as the technology evolves, so does the number of use cases extend beyond the traditional, writes Anna Branquinho, Product marketing associate at Trinity IoT. In fact, tracking non-powered assets on a low or no-installation basis thanks to the availability of innovative hardware has the potential to be revolutionary. It is especially in agriculture and tracking of livestock like cows where this can be ground-breaking.

South African farmers are turning towards IoT as a more effective way of introducing digitally-driven, smart agricultural practices. Earlier this year, Jon Deere announced their first fully autonomous tractor at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. It is designed to enable farmers to till their land autonomously and remotely. Moreover, the company is also making an autonomy kit available that can transform any of its tractors into a self-driving piece of equipment guided by satellite while capturing data to ‘learn’ as it carries on.

Just a few years ago, who could imagine that technologies that allow farmers to control their tractors from their smartphones would become generally available and affordable?

Transformative tech

Although Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies are increasing exponentially, the application of IoT within the agricultural industry still has a long way to go in this country. There is a lot of talk about NB-IoT and how that could change the game for wide-area networking for small package data transmissions, like location-based tracking.

Something Trinity IoT has been researching is the potential to help other businesses track their assets periodically instead of real-time tracking. The latter is often very wasteful of battery-powered trackers and is incredibly data-intensive. Instead, periodic tracking might be something like a location-based check-in or a predetermined report delivered every few hours.

Part of this process has entailed interviewing business owners from different sectors to discuss their challenges when it comes to IoT-based tracking. An interesting conversation has centred on how best to track medium to large assets. In this specific instance – cows.

Fields of possibilities

The best way to wirelessly track these non-powered, but widely-distributed assets in the middle of nowhere, requires the use of GSM-based infrastructure, especially in South Africa. But determining the hardware to do so is more challenging.

Some believe that taking a battery-powered tracker, programming it to transmit its location every six to eight hours and strapping it as a collar to the cow’s neck would be ideal. But just try to collar hundreds of cows. Some equate the experience to trying to get a cat to swallow antibiotics. And because these trackers are battery-powered, they will require either replacement at one stage or recharging.

Another suggestion is to put RFID tags on the cows’ ears. While this has been done a few times, it requires the farmer to set up RFID base stations at strategic locations on the pastures. The base stations need access to power. If the farmer is looking at 18 000 hectares of land, a scalable power source must also come into the equation.

Another factor is that cows must stand within a 30-meter radius of the antenna. There is no way of guaranteeing this will happen. And if a cow has an itchy ear, the resultant rubbing against a tree or one another can easily damage the tag.

Where to next?

Ultimately, a farmer needs a battery-powered, low-cost tracker with low or very little installation required. Furthermore, the tracker must be able to send data every three hours. There is no quick fix yet, but the journey has started. There is a willingness by farmers to embrace IoT technology. It just needs to be the right fit.

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