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High-tech cowboy calls the cattle home

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dawn Fallik
Globe Correspondent / June 30, 2008

Why did the farmer put a Walkman on his cow?

Because an MIT professor told him to.

In a research project aimed at helping cattle farmers corral their herds more efficiently, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the US Department of Agriculture has devised a way to remotely issue commands to cows.

The researchers are still experimenting with exactly what sound will best lead a cow home, but they've tested annoying horns, helicopters, and crooning cowboys.

The "Ear-A-Round" device, which looks like a solar-powered Walkman, allows scientists to track an animal's location and movements. It also keeps information about the cow's body orientation - how its head moves, for example - to understand how it travels individually and with the herd.

"First you have to know what the cow is naturally inclined to do, and then the system is more likely to work," said researcher Daniela Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. "You learn what not to do and what the animals dislike and what goes against their nature."

Rus first got the idea when she went to visit a friend in Australia who owns 500,000 cattle over two ranches. The herds are so big, ranchers have to corral the cows by helicopter to move them to better grazing lands or bring them home. Her friend complained that it was incredibly expensive and time consuming to repair and maintain fences on the ranches, and hard to keep track of the animals. He asked if Rus, a robotics expert, could help.

In August, the researchers will conduct a field test in the USDA's Jornada Experimental Range in Las Cruces, N.M., using cows that USDA scientist Dean M. Anderson has been training.

"Come on in, girls," he croons in their ears during the training. When they start moving, he stops talking. If they pause for three or four seconds, his voice starts up again. The challenge is whether they can be gathered just by the sound of his voice.

"Animals have very astute hearing," he said. "I had a cat that when you opened a can of pop, it didn't show up, but when you opened up a can of cat food, it was right there."

In an earlier test, the cows did

move when sounds were transmitted into their ears, but a guy in an all-terrain vehicle had to steer them in the right direction.

Although they expect most cows will respond to the sounds, an electric shock can be administered - like a dog's electric fence - if they don't act. Then they learn that they'd better respond to that first command, Rus said.

"The cows do have leaders, so if you instruct the leaders what to do, the herd will follow," said Rus.

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