Precisely Monitoring Livestock—and More

By Mark Roberti

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding research to track animals, but the work could have broader implications.

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On Sept. 7, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that grants worth $7.4 million would be given to 76 small businesses to conduct research related to food security, natural resources and agricultural issues. One grant, made through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, was awarded to Clairvoyant Technology, which is using the funding to develop software that enables livestock tracking to within 2 inches (5 centimeters) with off-the-shelf ultrahigh-frequency RFID tags, readers and antennas. If successful, the project could have broad implications for the use of passive UHF RFID in retail, logistics and many other industries.

Thomas J. Frederick, president of Clairvoyant Technology, says livestock tracking is a means to an end. "We were looking at the SBIR program as a funding vehicle for research and commercialization of several patented and patent-pending technologies," he says. "Of the 11 federal agencies that participate in the SBIR program, the USDA is among those publishing very broad solicitations. Livestock tracking was a means to fit our technology into research in which the USDA was interested."

Frederick says he has been working on a way to get more precise location data on items with passive UHF RFID tags and to eliminate extraneous reads near distribution-center portals, retail security gates, point-of-sale terminals and so on. "I felt like the position information was there in the signal using standard readers, tags and antennas," he says. "We just weren't effectively extracting it."

Clairvoyant will test its software in field trials involving tracking cattle in the area near feed bunks and water troughs. This could help ranchers monitor the health of their livestock. "The idea is to detect whether an animal is actually at the bunk versus lying sick nearby," Frederick says. "If an animal doesn't visit the feed or water within several hours, an alert can be generated to send a rancher out to check on that calf. There are many other applications, in dairy parlors, auction lots, poultry farms and so on. We are developing a fundamental technology. We anticipate the established industry players will develop new and improved applications and automations using this technology."

Clairvoyant has developed an algorithm that accounts for uncertainty in measuring radio waves from tag to reader, which can be affected by the environment and multipath (the reader receiving waves that bounce off objects). It will conduct field trials early next year at facilities run by Kansas State University, in cooperation with KSU's Animal Identification Knowledge Laboratory. The USDA will consider the project a success if passive UHF readers can reliably discriminate between animals and their motion. Did the calf visit the water trough or is it meandering in the vicinity? Which cattle moved through the loading chute? For Clairvoyant, success will be validating the models and achieving much more precise location accuracy of tagged objects. Frederick hopes to get more funding through phase 2 of the SBIR program, so the technology can be further refined and commercialized.

"This research will have many applications outside agriculture," Frederick says. "Once a viable product is developed and tested, we will work with hardware and software vendors to license the technology. It is important to note that the algorithm does not need to run on the reader. The algorithm requires that the reader produce accurate phase shift and receive signal strength data, as well as identify the antenna that received the signal, frequency of the signal and time it was received. With that, the tracking can be done in middleware or the back-end enterprise system."

This means the algorithm could be used to more precisely locate almost any tagged object in any environment with much greater accuracy than is possible today.