Internet-Connected Sheep and the New Roaming Wireless

Scientists around the world are building sensor networks that rely on the natural environment.

The Internet of Things is one of those buzzy phrases that has driven technology and business since it was first coined nearly two decades ago. Usually it’s applied to urban areas where the idea is that your refrigerator, pantry, and grocery cart might all be able to wirelessly share data. But applying the Internet of Things outside of cities poses special challenges—and potentially even greater rewards.

“Doing this work in in the rural environment is tremendously exciting,” says Gordon Blair, a professor at Lancaster University who specializes in these distributed systems. “It’s easy to make these technologies work in a city where you have broadband and wireless everywhere.” Not so much the case in remote areas. That’s what makes one potential application so exciting—using sensor-equipped sheep and other animals as wi-fi hotspots.

Yes, scientists around the world are attempting to stitch together disparate rural areas by creating sensor networks that rely on the natural, woolly, grass-munching environment. “Sheep can be connected to the Internet or a portion of a river or a tree,” Blair said.

Over the summer, U.K. phone company EE put hotspots inside cow-shaped sculptures at Glastonbury music festival. Though these bovines weren’t alive, the very real connectivity points could just as easily go on an actual animal's collar. In Northern Scandinavia, people have tested the possibility of using reindeer to bring Internet capabilities to the Sámi people, nomadic residents of these remote, mountainous areas. The Sámi’s main source of income is the reindeer herds that they travel with, making traditional wired internet access impossible. It also makes a network of wi-fi enabled reindeer the perfect choice to bring them email and Internet access.

Sensor networks also allow people to cheaply monitor agricultural operations, flocks of animals, as well as pollution or flooding. “This technology is huge for agriculture,” Blair says. “It can help you be very precise about when you’ll apply pesticides and monitor the state of plants.” Large-scale farmers could monitor their flocks remotely. Environmentalists could cheaply study air or water pollution on a long-term basis. Because areas that never had cellular connection (much less wireless Internet) can still take advantage of linked sensor networks, farmers in developing countries would finally have access to the same technology as the connected world.

In Australia, where sheep are big business, scientists are hoping to put sensor technology in animals' ear tags. Greg Cronin is a professor of animal welfare and behavior who is interested in using technology to monitor flocks. One of the biggest problems for Australian sheep farmers are dogs—both feral and native. “In some areas it’s almost impossible to keep sheep because of them,” Cronin says. He worked with a team to put GPS trackers and accelerometers into sheep collars. “If you could pick the right sensor that identified behaviors that changed when sheep were under attack, it could trigger an alarm for the farmer.” This, hopefully, would allow someone to intervene before the flock was harmed.

As long as these sensors don’t weigh more than 2 percent of an animal’s body weight, sheep are unlikely to experience any harm from being used as digital transmitters, Cronin says. Some of the experimental ear tags in development contain solar panels that eliminate the need for batteries or recharging altogether, further reducing the weight and long-term cost. Herding animals could also be ideal for larger mesh networks. Though each sensor has a small signal, many small sensors can foster connectivity across huge distances. Blair describes it as a type of wireless gossip. “You form a network where you get messages from computer to computer and eventually back to a place where you’re connected to the Internet.” If one of the sensors stops working or a lone sheep moves away from the herd, it doesn’t disrupt the flow of chatter.

While companies like John Deere are already using GPS sensors in their farm equipment, it's unlikely that your local herd of cows is wi-fi-connected just yet. “We know we can do it but we still have to do the hard work to prove it,” Cronin says. “It used to be 10 years before you saw things from the lab in the real world.” Today, he says, this technology might only be a few years from reality.