Moove it! Tracking the common cow

Farmers are tracking the health of their cows with technology that uses accelerometers, the same sensor that orients a cellphone screen.

Farmers are tracking the health of their cows with technology that uses accelerometers, the same sensor that orients a cellphone screen. The sensors used in farming are not unlike those also found in wearables worn by people.

The collar is placed on a cow and the accelerometer records up and down movement as well as acceleration. The information generated by the sensor in the collar, developed by Silent Herdsman, a U.K.-based startup in Scotland, provides data for analysis.

The cow's head position and movement is a direct reflection of the amount of activity the cow is expending, said Ivan Andonovic, the firm's co-founder and CTO. "From that, we got some clever software that analyzes the behavior of the animal to look for changes in activity patterns characteristic of when an animal goes in heat," he said.

This information is important to farmers in managing pregnancy and milk production. They don't want to miss an opportunity to inseminate a cow, because missed cycles cost money, said Andonovic.

This is just one of the many uses of the accelerometer, one of the most widely used sensors in Internet of Things applications. Along with its role in flipping the screen around on a smartphone, it's widely used in fitness gear such as the Fibit, and is being added to sports equipment.

The accelerometer continues to draw novel uses. The city of Boston, for instance, uses it to collect information about road conditions. Smartphone accelerometers are sensitive enough to record bumps in the road. The use in farming is yet another iteration for this sensor, and the only limit is the sophistication of the software that analyzes the data.

Silent Herdsman is expanding its analysis of the sensor data to monitor the cow's eating habits and its rumination, or regurgitation of feed, something that's better known as chewing the cud. From these data points, the software can determine the overall health of the cow, Andonovic said.

Farming, along with the oil and gas industries, are among the fastest-growing areas for Internet of Things-type applications that use microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensors to gather data. The accelerometer is one type of microelectromechanical sensor. Others include gyroscopes, microphones, pressure-based, motion and temperature sensors, according to Jeremie Bouchaud, a senior principal analyst at IHS Technology.

"Farming is becoming much more high tech than we expected," Bouchaud said.

In the industrial market, where MEMS technology is used to directly gather information in areas such as asset-tracking systems, farming, smart grids and building automation, worldwide MEMS revenue will rise to $120 million in 2018, up from $16 million in 2013, according to data IHS released last week. This may not seem like a lot of revenue, but accelerometers can be purchased in bulk for less than a $1 each.

The low cost of MEMS sensors is just one thing that is helping spread the growth of IoT connected devices. Another is the growth of short-range, low-power wireless networking technologies.

The Silent Herdsman collar uses the ZigBee communication protocol. The collar's monitoring is continuous, but the device only transmits when it has critical data to share. That saves energy and allows users to get four or five years of use from one battery. "We don't transmit any redundant data; we actually only send data of value," said Andonovic.

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