Wearables Are Turning Your Pets and Other Animals Into Big Data

Wearable and ingestible tech for animals is found on and in creatures such as bees and cows, and your dogs and cats. The amount of data generated by the devices is exploding, providing new insights into and a much better understanding of the lives of the creatures around us.

I do not think Mélinda will mind me sharing some very personal information about her: she struggled to produce milk in the time after her firstborn.

Luckily, a new diet changed things for the better, and her milk production shot up.

I have never met Mélinda — and in all likelihood never will. She lives not far from Quebec in Canada, while I live in Tokyo, Japan.

The reason I know about her troubles, and could tell you intimate details about her current health and even what she is eating, is an electronic sensor that sits in her stomach.

Each time Mélinda passes a Wi-Fi point, data from the sensor about pH levels in her stomach and her temperature are transmitted to a local database, and from there can be sent all around the world.

In fact, I am pretty certain Mélinda does not mind her data being shared, as she is a Holstein Friesian cow.

She is one of an ever-increasing number of livestock, pets, and wild animals that are being equipped with wearable or ingestible tech.

The vast amounts of data generated by the devices are leading to scientific discoveries and new, more proactive approaches to how we treat and interact with animals.

In the data lie the promise of previously unobtainable levels of transparency and better understanding of everything from dairy production and the lives of our pets to the training of racehorses and flight patterns of individual bees.

Heads-Up on Your Horse

One of the biggest advantages of wearable and ingestible devices is their ability to provide information about an animal’s condition that we cannot easily observe.

For example, iNOVOTEC Animal Care’s solution, which is what Mélinda is equipped with, enables farmers to catch illnesses much earlier than without it, leading to healthier lives for their livestock, while also saving the farmers money.

It has also proven helpful for anticipating when a cow is in heat. Ingestibles and wearables capable of tracking a cow’s temperature and general activity can improve insemination success rates from roughly 50 percent to nearly 90 percent.

“For the farmer, part of the benefit is that it lowers losses. If cows get sick and are treated with antibiotics, for example, the milk or meat from those animals cannot be sold. If they receive feed that is improperly balanced or blended, their milk production drops. Now we get data relating to those parameters on a continual basis,” says Bia Thomas, one of the founders of iNOVOTEC.

In Australia, Pinker Pinker felt the benefits of wearable tech. The racehorse was a local celebrity that won the $3 million W.S. Cox Plate race.

Pinker’s training had been optimized using a device from E-Trakka, located under her saddle, which gathered data about heart rate, speed, and stride length during each training session.

“We combine the data gathering with online systems. One collects it and feeds into a central database. We have also developed an attachable display which clips onto the saddle and lets the rider see real-time data on the horse’s speed and heart rate,” explains Andrew Stuart, founder of E-Trakka.

The system allows for better, more precise training and prevents overtraining.

For example, one horse was suffering from an undiscernible illness and showed a heart rate of 170 beats per minute during a training session, when it should have been around 110.

Training a horse while it is sick means risking permanent damage to the animal. There are even examples of racehorses suddenly dying after hard training, with autopsies revealing that they were sick at the time.

Tracking Buzz

A different kind of wearable tech was used by “Buzz Aldrin” (sorry), who is sadly no longer with us, to help a group of scientists.

The Buzz in question — nicknamed so solely by me — was an Australian bee who, like her sisters, was equipped with a tiny GPS tracker by scientists from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency.

Plotting the bees’ flight courses and behavior, the scientists were able to analyze the importance of various factors in relation to colony collapse disorder.

Turning Your Pets’ Growls and Barks into Human Speech

Wearable tech for animals is not only finding its ways onto farms and wild animals. It is also entering your home.

Wearable ID tags and GPS locators can be attached to your pet’s collar, so you are always able to find your pet — or at least its collar.

Other systems track your pet’s movement when you are not home, and some promise to analyze your dog’s bark and “translate” it. There is even the company No More Woof, which is working on a device that interprets your dog’s brain waves and tells you exactly what your dog is thinking.

Admittedly, the device is very much in the experimental phase, and so far makes a dog look like a cross between Snowball from the animated series Rick and Morty and a confused telemarketer. It is, however, an illustration of the diversity of products and the cutting edge of wearables for animals.

The research company IDTechEX recently released the report “Wearable Technology for Animals 2015–2025,” which tracked products from 141 manufacturers. The report predicts an explosive growth in the market.

“For pets the uptake is, to a degree, already taking place. Wearable tech in relation to livestock is still moving at a somewhat slower pace, but we are definitely also seeing a marked increase in the market there. The slow uptake could, in part, be because of a cultural conservatism in farming,” says James Hayward, an analyst at IDTechEx.

Turning Animals Into Big Data

Many products are reaching levels of sophistication and the number of units shipped that they can cumulatively produce big data.

For example, E-Trakka has conducted more than 30,000 readings of horses in training, while iNOVOTECH has been gathering and analyzing data for years. During the average 150-day life span of the company’s devices, they generate 21,600 independent measurements of pH and temperature.

As with any industry in the throes of a big data revolution, the potential for advances is becoming apparent incrementally. One discovery leads to new questions, more insights, and new potential uses of wearables.

For livestock, the immediate benefits of big data are the identification and proactive treatment of diseases and ailments. This includes insights regarding the influence of feed change on the health of animals.

The next step is increased automation, where the computer systems automatically analyze data and alert farmers and potentially vets if there is a need to change the feed or if a cow is getting sick.

Beyond that lies a future of full transparency from farm to consumer.

Imagine a trip to the supermarket in the near future where you can scan a carton of milk with your phone and immediately see detailed information about where the milk is from, down to what farm produced it and the health of the animals on that farm.

“I think we really are in the early days of a shift where service providers like big dairy producers are going to be required to deliver that degree of transparency. The technology is fast approaching a point where it is possible,” Bia Thomas says.

For racehorses, wearables and data are transforming traditional training methods, making them much more efficient and minimizing the risk of harm to the animals.

E-Trakka is working on systems that let trainers share real-time data across the world, and it’s looking at the possibilities of working with data scientists in collaborative analysis of the data the company has gathered so far.

The data generated by “Buzz Aldrin” is perhaps the best example of how new avenues and possibilities are continuously opening up for wearable/ingestible tech and big data in relation to animals.

The GPS trackers have allowed scientists to analyze the effects of stress factors including disease, pesticides, air pollution, water contamination, diet, and extreme weather on the movements of bees and their ability to pollinate.

While this analysis is valuable in its own right, it becomes doubly so when looking at the Canadian company Bee Vectoring Technology, which is using bumblebees as a delivery method for natural pesticides. The method is far less invasive and much more efficient when it comes to delivering the pesticides where they are supposed to go.

The issue becomes how to accurately track if the bees have indeed gone to the places you want them to, and to discover ways of encouraging them to fly to those places—hence the need for a wearable tracking device capable of generating big data.

This data generation covers many other species, and is perhaps the most exciting long-term promise of wearable and / or ingestible devices for animals.

A combination of data from different sources in an ecosystem is likely to generate new, detailed insights into how its parts interact and influence each other. It will thereby lead to a much deeper understanding of it — and in turn on the effect humans as a species exert on the various ecosystems we are a part of and have created.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Marc Prosser
Marc Prosser
Marc is British, Danish, Geekish, Bookish, Sportish, and loves anything in the world that goes 'booiingg'. He is a freelance journalist and researcher living in Tokyo and writes about all things science and tech. Follow Marc on Twitter (@wokattack1).
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