Putting Border Collies Out of Work?
From the Economist:
A new way of corralling cattle is being tested in New Mexico
BUILDING and maintaining the fences needed to control livestock is an expensive and time-consuming business. The materials alone can cost more than $20,000 a kilometre. On top of that, there is the cost of repairing damage caused by wild animals and falling trees. And then there is the need to move some fences around, a bit at a time, so that grazing land can be used efficiently. Strange as it may seem at first blush, many ranchers would therefore like to see the back of fences—if only they could.
According to Dean Anderson, an animal scientist at America’s Department of Agriculture, and Daniela Rus, a computer expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the answer is to move from real fencing to the virtual sort. The idea of virtual fencing is not entirely new. Pet “containment” systems, such as virtual dog collars, have been around since the early 1970s. But previous attempts to come up with system for controlling free-ranging animals have failed.
Dr Anderson and Dr Rus started from the observation that the job of a fence is merely to regulate an animal’s behaviour and asked if there was another way of achieving the same end. The result is a device dubbed the Ear-a-round, which acts both as a sensor of what an animal is up to and as a discipline on animals that are not behaving as their owner wishes.
The Ear-a-round consists of a small, light box that sits on top of a cow’s head, and a pair of earpieces made of fabric and plastic. The box contains a computer chip, a GPS tracking device and a transceiver that enables it to be programmed remotely. The earpieces serve both to keep the box upright and to supply command signals—either sonic or electric—to the animal wearing the device. For maximum working lifetime, the whole thing is powered by lithium-ion batteries that are topped up by solar cells.
Immediate concern has been voiced that the new technology will result in a hundred grizzled Marlboro men standing in line at the Job Centre come Monday morning, but not so, says Dean M. Anderson (‘Ear-A-Round’ inventor) who insists quite lucidly that the focus is now upon shifting the cowboy’s mentality from that of ‘daily toil and hard physical labour to a greater psychological understanding of bovine behaviour’. Right. And cows might fly.
They might… but I suspect that like the augmented animals experiments the Ear-a-round project will prove to be founded more on hyperbole than practicality. We love technology, we really do – but it’s not the answer to all of the world’s problems. Sometimes less is more, and we are sure that the simplicity and poetry of a fine working dog can never be replaced by mindless circuits and wiring.