IoT Aims to Track Free-Ranging Reindeer in Finland

Finnish reindeer herders are testing a LoRaWAN-based solution from Digita and Actility on several dozen alpha female reindeer, in order to track herds of thousands of animals and detect when they may be in danger from predators or vehicles.
Published: January 18, 2018

Reindeer herders, under the guidance of the Finnish Reindeer Herders Association (Paliskuntain yhdistys, or FRHA) are testing an Internet of Things (IoT)-based solution to monitor the location and well-being of their reindeer herds, and some individual animals, as they roam the tundra and forests of northern Finland this winter.

The herders are using the technology, provided by Digita, with low-range wide-area network (LoRaWAN) and GPS-enabled trackers on some reindeer, and Actility software to manage the location data and trigger alerts if a herd is determined to be at risk, such as if they suddenly start running, run long distances or even cease moving entirely. Mapping software company Mapitare Oy is providing high-resolution maps for use offline on mobile devices.

Reindeer in Finland are raised for meat, fur and antler products. They travel a wide area to graze in that country—up to 40 kilometers (24.9 miles) of wild territory within a single day, though the average daily travel is less than that. Because of this wide grazing range, it is impossible for herders to watch them all day, and so the animals sometimes can be difficult to locate. They can be vulnerable to wild animal attacks or simply wander out of the expected territory. For this reason, the FRHA reports, up to 10 percent of the animals’ annual value can be lost each year. There are 300,000 reindeer and about 4,400 reindeer owners in Finland.

The FRHA began investigating a technology-based solution for tracking animals about a decade ago, and implemented a GPS-based system. Three years ago, it released a smartphone app known as Porokello (Finnish for “reindeer bell”) that allowed drivers to indicate when they see a reindeer wandering near the road using their Smartphones.

The reindeer herders of Finland have used GPS- and GSM-enabled trackers that identified each animal’s location and transmitted the data via a cellular connection. Such devices are commonly employed to monitor the locations of hunting dogs. However, these trackers could prove to be too bulky and expensive for wide use on reindeer. Instead, they were typically worn by just a few reindeer—approximately 70 to 100 animals altogether.

The herders have also used a device known as a death bell, which detects if an animal has remained in one place for more than three hours, possibly indicating that it may have been killed by a predator. The device sends its unique ID number via a very high frequency (VHF) RFID transmission to those carrying VHF antennas, only if movement has stopped for a prolonged period, so as to alert the herders to a problem, according to Matti Särkelä, the office head of the Reindeer Herders’ Association, in Finland.

“This allows reindeer owners to go to view a deceased member of their herd as soon as possible,” Särkelä states, “and to capture evidence of predator attacks. Additionally, they can seek compensation from the government when it can be proven that a predator has killed a reindeer.” However, VHF technology requires that antennas be installed in all the areas of interest, and this can make it challenging to monitor every animal’s location.

FRHA and the Palojärvi reindeer herding district (there are 54 such districts in Finland) began piloting the Digita- and Actility-based IoT system in June 2017. Digita then began offering trackers to Palojärvi district herders in September, during the bi-annual reindeer roundup, says Von Cameron, Actility’s business and development execution VP for the Americas. Rather than tag every animal, the association applied the trackers only to each herd’s alpha female.

Since the animals tend to travel in herds, knowing where the alpha female is located provides sufficient information to understand the entire herd’s activities. Herds with a single alpha female can vary in size from tens to hundreds of reindeer. In one area, approximately 65 to 70 trackers are in use for around 4,000 animals.

The reindeer are being tracked throughout an area spanning 50 square kilometers (19.3 square miles), serviced by five LoRaWAN gateways installed on masts standing more than 300 meters (984 feet) in height, to capture tracker transmissions and forward that information to a server. “LoRa is a great technology for this use case for several reasons,” Cameron says. The tracker does not require a SIM card to store and transmit data, and can support a long battery life—potentially five to ten years.

“We are using existing commercially available GPS LoRaWAN trackers” during the first phase of the pilot, says Ari Kuukka, Digita’s IoT services director. Digita is currently evaluating trackers from several vendors for their battery life, LoRaWAN radio performance and durability in the extreme environment in which reindeer roam, with temperatures dropping to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). The trackers, which are being attached to the animals’ collars, typically measure 10 centimeters by 5 centimeters by 2 centimeters (3.9 inches by 2 inches by 0.8 inch) and weigh about 200 grams (7.1 ounces).

“The long-term target of the project,” Kuukka says, “is to provide significantly smaller and lighter devices that could be attached comfortably to the animal’s ear.” The reindeer herders can use the technology in three ways. In one scenario, they can set up geo-fencing to create zones in which the animals roam. If the trackers move out of an acceptable zone, the software can capture that event and forward an alert to the herders’ mobile phone, provided that it is running the association’s app.

Herders can also use the system to capture real-time data regarding their herds when they request it in the app, or directly in the software. Upon awakening, the solution interrogates the trackers, which then respond with their GPS location. The system also allows herders to track herd movements by monitoring one or several trackers—for instance, if there are multiple tagged animals traveling with a single herd.

“One thing we’ve seen around the world is that [end users] start with something simple,” Cameron says, such as monitoring for any workers who might have fallen, or any animals that may have left a permitted area. The association can then build on that solution to accomplish more. The trackers can include accelerometers and other sensors that could identify everything from a fall to a sick animal, or changes in behavior that might indicate an injury.

Actility offers its IoT solution as a cloud-based system, or it can install the software directly on a local server. The same technology being employed by the FRHA is also being used in South Africa to protect rhinoceroses from being poached on wildlife preserves, and to protect cattle throughout the United States and Australia.

The reindeer pilot is, in part, intended to determine how densely the gateways should be deployed in order to provide the most effective location data, Kuukka explains. “The terrain is very challenging,” he says. “There are lots of high hills, very few roads and very little infrastructure on the area.” To date, Digita has found that the gateways are receiving transmissions at a range of up to 40 kilometers (24.9 miles) under good conditions. When the gateways were installed at a distance of more than 100 meters (328 feet), the transmission range was about 15 to 20 kilometers (9.3 to 12.4 miles). “However, the terrain topography with high hills brings additional challenges to the transmission ranges.”

Särkelä says he hopes to employ the lighter version of the tags in reindeer ears, and for costs to drop to less than €50 ($60) per unit so that the herders could purchase them in higher volumes—typically, tens of thousands, he says. “With IoT,” he explains, “we also hope that operator costs could be much lower than [the GPS- and GSM-based system],” and battery life would enable the transmission of location data on a monthly, weekly or daily basis.

The greatest gain thus far, Särkelä says, has been the ability for herders to know the reindeer herd’s approximate location without requiring the labor previously required for employees to drive around the terrain searching for them, “which took a lot of money and labor from us.”

Over time, Särkelä adds, “you can analyze your reindeer behavior and movements on an electrical map” with the collected data. For example, in the past, there was little understanding of why a herd might move at a particular speed or in a given direction. With automated data regarding herd movements, however, the herders could better grasp when something was taking place—a predator chasing a herd, for instance—based on the accelerated movement.

The FRHA’s long-term goal is three-fold: to follow reindeer movements at a low cost, as well as receive alerts regarding animals’ deaths or if they graze or travel near roads. According to Särkelä, “Our minds are open to all new ideas or tests related to fulfilling that goal” for accomplishing these three challenges

Going forward, Cameron says, “If there’s a killer app for IoT, it’s track-and-trace.” He predicts the time is coming, sooner rather than later, when LoRa network providers will be able to collaborate to enable companies to offer track-and-trace capability for LoRa-tagged items anywhere throughout the world.